Friday, August 21, 2009

Bloody cellphones

Global Witness released a new, major report on mining in Democratic Republic of Congo last month that identifies some of the British firms and their involvement in the country’s ongoing war. The full 110-page report, “Faced with a gun, what can you do?” is available online, as is a more condensed summary.

In discussing this with some friends recently, I was asked about what kinds of actions individual consumers can take. It is easy to feel powerless, but, since US consumption is in many ways responsible for the civil war and grinding poverty in DRC, our role is crucial. Here are some ideas abouts things you can do before you buy your next cell phone or computer:
  • First, research the phone company and their policy on their coltan supply. Many have detailed statements on line. We can do research, encourage other to do the same, and send letters to manufacturers (specifically their departments of corporate responsibility). Even when their policies are posted, send letters asking questions so they know that people care. It is particularly important to encourage rigorous monitoring and enforcement by companies of their supply chains. Just because suppliers sign an agreement that they do not use coltan from DRC is not really enough. For one example, you can see Motorola’s statements on the mining of metals and their suppliers. What is perhaps most amazing to me is that despite their efforts, they report that only 47 of 179 suppliers even responded to their survey. Certainly Motorola can require their suppliers to at least respond to their survey!
  • Second, people can encourage companies to mine coltan elsewhere--Australia and Greenland for example. The latter is suspected of having large untapped reserves and requires some exploratory research. Nokia, for example, has tried to eliminate Congolese coltan from its supply chain. Still, Nokia has to be pushed to provide more rigorous documentation and enforcement. Apple and Samsung also have policies you should be able to find online.
  • Third, we can encourage the development of alternative technologies. I am technically out of my league here, but there needs to be research into affordable ceramic capacitator construction... Given all of the other technological advances in this area in recent years, this should be feasible.
  • Fourth, we can encourage our family, friends, businesses, colleagues, churches, and organizations to do this research and make phone calls and write letters and consume products accordingly. If a university or large business is purchasing a bunch of phones or laptops, I think an inquiry into the supply chain would be taken seriously from a vendor.
  • Finally, of course, we can try to limit our consumption. Recycle. Try to keep our cellphones longer...
Just a few ideas. I am sure there are other good ones out there. Hope this is helpful.

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