For more than a decade, the world has rallied around trying to end the use of particular minerals when they are sourced to benefit, directly or indirectly, armed groups. A history of violence and compulsion caused these metals to be classified as conflict minerals – as in, minerals that are extracted in these dire circumstances. The minerals currently classified as conflict minerals include tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, and these particular metals are in widespread use in the creation of electronics. Although early focus took direct aim at the conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wherever conflict is associated with a country’s mining, they are classified as conflict minerals.
In 2010, the United States Congress passed the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which contains a section requiring publicly-traded companies to disclose the use of these metals in their products. Although some major retailers protested that this law is too burdensome, “several large technology companies… have joined with human rights organizations to support the reporting requirements. Hewlett-Packard and Intel have already made significant progress in tracking their supply chain in order to avoid purchasing minerals and metals that could be financing armed groups in the Congo, says Aaron Hall, a policy analyst with the Enough Project, a Washington-based rights group.”
In January 2021, the Conflict Minerals Regulation took effect in the EU with the aim of ensuring that EU importers of tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold meet the international responsible sourcing standards set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The regulation is designed to ensure that global and EU smelters and refiners source these metals responsibly. Responsible sourcing or sustainable procurement is sourcing materials from areas that adhere to environmental and worker protection and is one of they key metrics used in assessing the sustainability of an organization.
Both these regulations and the work of organizations such as the Enough Project’s endeavor to end the human rights abuses associated with sourcing these metals.
Beyond the social aspects associated with conflict minerals, good news comes on the environmental sustainability front when these metals are recovered through recycling. As recovered materials they are classified as conflict-free. This helps to purify the supply chain with the added sustainability benefits of reusing materials, lessening the energy, cost and labor needed to mine them in the first place.
Carol Baroudi has been focused on sustainable electronics for more than 15 years and is recognized for her prominent work as lead author for Green IT for Dummies. Carol is a contributing guest blogger for CNE Direct and consulting to support new sustainability initiatives.