Conflict Minerals: What’s Being Done?

This post continues the discussion of conflict minerals which began in my previous post, “Defining Conflict Minerals.”

In a just and simple world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would thrive off possessing such a rich variety of natural resources. Unfortunately, this is not the case and valuable minerals are used to finance conflict and destabilize the DRC. Even though it has taken a bit too long, the rest of the world has begun to think about ways to eliminate conflict minerals from the global supply chain. Governments have begun to pass legislation with the intent to foster responsible sourcing. Additionally, there are industry associations focused on helping manufacturers identify conflict-free sources for minerals and non-profit organizations that shine the spotlight on corporate use of conflict minerals and raise awareness of relevant issues among consumers. Fortunately, the world wide supply chain is responding to external pressures and progress is being made in the war on conflict minerals.

In 2010, the heavily publicized Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed. Dodd-Frank is primarily known for bringing about significant changes in financial regulation. However, Section 1502 of the act addresses the trade and use of conflict materials and hopes to make the corporate supply chain more transparent. This legislation introduced requirements for independent third party supply chain traceability audits, and all publicly traded companies must report their mineral sourcing to the public and the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission. More than 70 percent of smelters that produce the 3Ts (tin, tantalum, tungsten) and gold have now passed conflict-free audits. In turn, as these audits are pushed down supply lines, the new regulations will even impact private and foreign companies that are not directly regulated by the SEC. For example, corporations now feel the pressure to only source certified conflict free minerals, and mining operations are increasingly separating themselves from local militia groups. American efforts have helped inspire other governments to pursue similar actions and the EU passed its own conflict minerals regulations a little over a month ago. Like Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank, it aims to improve supply chain diligence. However, the EU legislation does differ in a few ways and applies to minerals that are sourced in regions outside of the DRC as well. The European regulation further differs in that it applies to a more narrowly defined set of companies and fewer downstream purchasers are covered under it.

While current regulations in the arena of conflict minerals are noble in intent, they have not been implemented free of criticism. As there is a large trend in governments slashing budgets, certain regulations that are perceived to be financially burdensome are being targeted. Accordingly, the cost of ensuring compliance with Dodd-Frank 1502 has been heavily scrutinized. This regulation can financially justify itself though. Costs to implement the act have dropped significantly as many innovations and tools are available to issuers and suppliers at no cost. Moreover, many corporations contribute to an audit fund that reduces some of the cost of audits to smelters. Furthermore, these efforts support U.S. national security concerns as they stabilize the region and remove power from warlords. Other arguments surrounding this part of Dodd-Frank revolve around closing existing loopholes. Some parts of Section 1502 are hard to interpret and have resulted in legal grey areas. Companies are required to “conduct a reasonable country of origin inquiry”–what counts as “reasonable” is open to interpretation. As global supply chains are increasingly complex, legislation needs to acknowledge this and make sure that companies investigate to the appropriate extent. As the extent is not clearly defined, companies have some wiggle room in disputing civil penalties.

Dodd-Frank has been a good start in the fight against conflict minerals, but more work needs to be done. Governments around the world need to help fund the construction of infrastructure and occupational training in the DRC’s mining regions. The mining sector has been hit hard by the conflict-free transition and many people’s livelihood no longer exists. Accurately tracing the source of conflict minerals in very important, but in order for it to have meaning it has to be followed by efforts to reduce or eliminate their usage. Under Dodd-Frank companies do not have self-auditing power, but the third parties that audit them are not monitored by a strict set of standards. In further defining what rigors smelters and other areas of the supply chain must undergo to show that they are conflict free, one common metric should be used to accurately access compliance.

Current regulation may still need to go farther, but fortunately there are industry associations and non-governmental organizations committed to the fight against conflict mines. See for example the Conflict Free Sourcing Initiative, Responsible Sourcing Network, and Raise Hope for Congo. Some efforts focus on promoting conflict-free mines in the Eastern DRC region. Some companies have completely stopped sourcing from the region, but this has harmed many miners that are not involved with the warlords. In response, efforts have been made to identify and promote responsibly sourced minerals from the DRC. Other organizations focus on tabulating the progress specific large companies have made on responsibly sourcing conflict minerals. For example see the Enough Project/Raise Hope for Congo Conflict Minerals Company Rankings at http://www.raisehopeforcongo.org/content/conflict-minerals-company-rankings. Some companies are making much greater efforts than others. For instance, Intel was the first company to publicly commit to making a fully conflict-free product with a deadline. On the other end of the spectrum, Nintendo has made no known efforts to trace or audit its supply chain. Unfortunately, the United States is considering abandoning the current regulations on conflict minerals that it presently has in place. This means that activist groups may play an increasingly vital role in informing the public and ensuring responsible sourcing among companies. Raise Hope for Congo conveniently provides a link that suggests ways you can take action.

Of course, another great way to help decrease the demand for conflict minerals is by either repairing or donating the technology that you possess. If you cut down on the amount of tech that you buy, then you will be cutting down on the vast array of minerals that are mined to produce it.

Apple Dreams in Green

In recent news, Apple released their annual Environmental Responsibility report which highlights the things that the corporation is doing to be more “green” such as encouraging renewable energy throughout the manufacturing process and trying to create sustainable practices for the paper used in their product packaging. But perhaps the most notable mention that came from this report was the declaration that one day it would end its reliance on mining and make its products solely from recycled materials or renewable resources. This is certainly a lofty goal for Apple and one worth pursuing even if they’re not sure how to go about it or when they’ll be able to achieve it.

Apple has been dubbed one of the most environmentally friendly technology companies in the world according to Greenpeace’s Clean Energy Index, leading the way among other tech industry giants like Google and Facebook. Apple has made significant progress in being environmentally conscientious from where it was several years ago and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. However, as they continue to seek ways to benefit the environment, they do so in pushing forward in developing new technologies rather than seeking to extend the life of existing ones.

Lifespans for electronics in the industry – as a whole – are dropping; even Apple places the iPhone’s estimated lifespan at around 3 years; not terribly impressive considering its cost. Two elements which play largely into determining how long a device can be considered relevant and useful are planned obsolescence and consumerism. Planned obsolescence, where devices are designed to fail at some point so that new devices can be purchased, can be done through a variety of means such as: limiting warranty periods, ending software upgrades and product support, hardware decisions, and discontinuing the availability of repair parts.

For all of Apple’s green efforts, they clearly do not want individuals working on repairing and extending the life of their products, even going so far as to shred its old products so that salvageable parts are not resold; a method that is used to protect its brand by preventing secondhand parts from flooding the market. While the shredded remains of iPhones are sifted apart and recycled to the best of Apple’s ability, the fact remains that those components could have been put to better use in keeping another device from landing in the shredder itself.

Image of shredded electronic devices
Shredded electronic devices from a Canadian E-waste Recycling Facility (no affiliation with Apple or this article). Photo from iFixit.org. Click the image to read more.

Consumerism is the other side of the technology lifespan coin for those individuals who want to have the latest and greatest devices. As a culture, we’re far more willing to go out and purchase something new rather than attempt to repair it and the tech industry knows this and promotes it. Apple, in showing off their going green endeavors, are either consciously or unconsciously coaxing consumers into feeling less guilt about buying new models each year. Consumers enjoy feeling that their purchase is created in an environmentally friendly way and that the devices will be recycled at the end of their lifecycle, but supporting Apple’s sustainable practices is negated by buying a brand-new phone each year when the old one worked just fine. In fact, studies have been done that show the availability of recycling as an option can lead to an increase in resource usage.

While recycling is a good alternative to throwing things away, prolonging the useful life of a product is far better. There’s a reason that Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is presented in that order.

Defining Conflict Minerals

images of coltan, cassiterite, gold ore, and wolframite
Photo by Rob Lavinsky. iRocks.com –CC-BY-SA-3.0

One hallmark of modern society is that technology has facilitated communication that was previously impossible due to insurmountable distances. Accordingly, cell phones play a vital role in the majority of Americans’ lives. For example, in a recent poll Time magazine found that a whopping 84% of Americans could not even last a day without their cell phones. The capacity of cell phones has increased rapidly over the past decade and smartphones have emerged to take a dominant role within the market. While smart phones may be user friendly, the supply chain that they are created from is not so simple. Numerous elements are used in smart phone manufacture and 70 of the 83 nonradioactive elements can be found within them. These elements come from all corners of the world and are representative of the global supply chain that is common in the production process. Unfortunately, some of these elements are purchased from unscrupulous warlords that use profits to further human suffering.

Extracting resources from conflict zones for the purpose of fueling war related activities has a long and tragic history. A commonly cited example in the minds of many people was portrayed in the movie Blood Diamond. This movie portrayed how profits from selling conflict diamonds contributed to civil unrest in Sierra Leone. The term “conflict commodity” actually emerged in the late 1990s in reference to diamonds that were financing strife in Angola and Sierra Leone. Presently, the term “conflict mineral” is often used and describes minerals that fund militia groups and the extremely brutal warfare that they engage in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict minerals extracted from the DRC are widely used in modern technological devices and the term itself typicallys refers to Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten, and Gold.

Conflict minerals in the DRC are largely located in remote mines found in the eastern regions of the country. The DRC has long suffered from a low human development index and rampant corruption. The government is based in the Western city of Kinshasa and its control over the country is often tenuous at best. Moreover, conflict has ravaged the country for the past 20 years and the eastern mining region is largely under control of warlords. Various rebel groups contest over the valuable resources and employ brutal tactics. Oftentimes, child soldiers and slave labor is used in order to achieve their aims. The welfare of people is given no quarter by these local militias and they are only concerned about selling minerals at a maximum profit, so that they can improve their military arsenal and propagate warfare. Sadly, the fierce fighting in the DRC has taken six million lives since 1996 and an alarming number of women have been raped during this period as well.

Now that we know the abysmal conditions under which these minerals are mined, it is important to understand how they make it into the global supply chain. The first step involves smuggling freshly mined minerals out of the DRC. The chaotic history of the region has resulted in the formation of a well-organized and deeply entrenched smuggling network. In fact, a 2014 UN report estimated that a staggering 98% of gold produced in the country was smuggled out. All conflict materials are smuggled out of the DRC at high rates and into neighboring African countries. In places like Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya conflict minerals are mixed with minerals from more legitimate sources and refined. From there these refined minerals are sold to smelters around the world, where they are prepared to be used in the manufacture process. It is certainly unfortunate that materials used to finance such awful causes have the potential to make it into our supply chain. However, as consumers we are not helpless in this matter. There are agencies and companies that try to manage the source of materials that they use in manufacture. Furthermore, recent government regulations both domestically and abroad target how conflict minerals are sourced and are aimed at eliminating their usage. In my next post I will address these developments.

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Local (Champaign-Urbana) Repair Guide

We know that even “do-it-together” repair can be intimidating for some people, or maybe you just don’t have the time in your busy schedule currently to come in and participate in the repair of your device. We understand, but want you to still consider repair before replacement of your device. Also, there are times when a client comes in for assistance and we find that the problem with their device is beyond our abilities at the Illini Gadget Garage, but we still believe the item in question can be repaired. For these types of instances, we have composed a list of local repair shops, and posted it on our website under the “Repair” tab. You can either access a spreadsheet that list addresses, contact information, hours, and the types of devices serviced, or a map that shows their physical locations.

Be aware that you will not find chains like Best Buy or Dick Van Dyke listed. This is because they mainly specialize in servicing products that were bought on their premises–plus we know you’re probably already aware of those options for service. If your merchandise is currently covered by a warranty policy, we fully encourage you to take it the location from where it was purchased. We just want you to know that the main focus of the resources we provide is to guide you to shops that specialize in repair no matter where or how long ago an item was purchased.

We also want to be clear–the Illini Gadget Garage does NOT endorse any of the listed businesses. This list is provided for information purposes only, to help those who come to us for assistance to find additional services they require. We do not refer clients to specific businesses; we merely provide the names of companies that can service the device in question. The decision as to which, if any, of the local shops you go to, is yours as a consumer.

What if your device can’t be repaired? Don’t worry–we can help you with that too. Check out our “Recycle” page at http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/recycle/. That page includes a link to the Champaign County Electronics Recycling guide, which lists local electronics recyclers, and provides links to the Illinois EPA Service Locator page and other relevant information on the electronics landfill ban in Illinois.

Have other questions? Have a suggestion for a local repair shop to add to our list? Send us a note at illinigadgetgarage@gmail.com.

Pop Ups!

Are you interested in learning about how to become a more empowered consumer and are you interested in technology? Would you like to learn tinkering skills that will serve you well throughout life?  If so, the Illini Gadget Garage is looking to mobilize its services and can come directly to you. Host a pop-up clinic–we can tailor our demonstrations and assistance to the needs of your organization.  At a pop-up clinic we can troubleshoot cell phone repair, laptop teardowns, solve software issues, or demonstrate how to solve a wide array of other issues. There is no need to worry about having the right tools or equipment, we are well stocked and all you need to do is show up.

In addition, we are open to helping all groups of people and you need not feel like you have to have prior experience with sustainability related topics. For example, on March 14th we set up a pop-up during Teenspace, an after school program for local middle and high school students. Our interactions with the adolescents helped foster a fun learning experience. Students not only worked with tools, but also learned about the accessibility of technology and the right to repair. Some students even stated that the experience made them, “want to work with technology one day.” There are many people around campus who have yet to decide on a career path and as technology is an emergent field, someone may find that they are naturally inclined towards it.

Our pop-up clinic service is free for on-campus entities thanks to funding from the Student Sustainability Committee.

Fill out the “Host a Pop-Up Clinic” online form to indicate your interest and to provide some basic information about your situation. We’ll be in touch for scheduling!

Right to Repair and the Tech Industry

How would you feel about passing legislation that increases the lifespan of your tech devices, reduces e-Waste, and creates American jobs? Numerous states across the country have such legislation on the table in the form of Right to Repair bills. Success in forcing automotive manufacturers to provide repair information to independent shops has emboldened consumer advocates and politicians to propose similar laws in regards to the electronic hardware and software found in modern technological gadgets. Likewise, if just one state passes a Right to Repair law in this new arena, then a domino effect will likely occur in the rest of the country. Manufacturers will likely see the writing on the wall and will react proactively to preempt nationwide legislation, as they did after the Massachusetts automotive bill was passed.

Big business is usually hesitant to loosen their stranglehold on an industry, unless they are forced to do so.  From their perspective, this makes sense as tighter control strongly correlates with higher profits. For example, Apple is notorious for making items that are difficult and expensive to repair. To repair one of their products, you need special screwdrivers that cannot be found in stores. Additionally, they do not release repair information to the public and it is sometimes prohibitively expensive to repair an item at the Apple Store. Specifically, their repair service for an iPod shuffle is more expensive than purchasing a new iPod.[1] These measures go against the best interests of the consumer. If companies like Apple were forced to make repair parts, tools, and information available to consumers and small repair shops, then the “little guy” would assuredly benefit. Apple would no longer be able to charge exorbitant rates for repair, as small businesses and do-it-yourselfers would have the means to cheaply fix electronic devices. After all, the very concept of ownership should mean that the manufacturer can no longer dictate how an item is used once it is purchased by a consumer.[1]

Besides the obvious impact on our wallets, extending the lifespan of our tech devices has numerous other positive implications as well. For starters, most tech devices are manufactured using a wide array of materials. Smartphones alone contain roughly 50 periodic table elements used in their manufacture.[2] Many of these elements are not recoverable by recycling and as we can all surmise, whenever anything is mined and or used in manufacturing, there are potential negative impacts on humans and the environment–even if it’s just the energy or water used in processing. Thus, it is important to emphasize repairing and reuse over recycling, to maximize resource efficiency and minimize negative impacts. Optimally people will get their products fixed and keep using them. If this is not the case, it is vital that an item gets repaired if possible and reused by either being sold, donated, or given away. Oftentimes, items are not re-purposed because tech companies prevent repairs. This is one type of planned obsolescence, and this phenomenon is both overly pervasive and easily preventable in so many areas. Even self-cleaning litter boxes contain chips within their cleaning solution cartridges that will no longer work once the cartridge has been used more than a factory predetermined number of times. The owner is forced to purchase a new cartridge, even if they have the know-how to take it apart and refill it, because it is programmed not to work after that predetermined number of uses.[3]

A crucial side effect of enabling more people to repair items is the creation of domestic jobs. We live in a global economy, and when manufacturer-imposed limits make it impractical to fix technological devices in the United States, these items are shipped to India or China.[4] These items are repaired abroad and value that could be created for the U.S. economy is literally shipped overseas. Moreover, the U.S. repair sector makes up as much as 4% of our GDP and is composed of mostly small operations that have the potential to create jobs at a local level.[4] By catering to large tech companies and turning monopolistic inclinations into law, it can readily be seen that the American economy and small business is damaged in return. After all, even though so much information has been denied, thousands of cell phone repair businesses and organizations have still managed to thrive. If they were given proper diagnostic access and repair equipment, their benefit to society would grow to even greater heights.

As with any newly proposed policy, the Right to Repair movement has garnered some criticism and opponents. Some parties emphasize the difficulty and danger  they believe to be inherent in electronics repair, claiming that do-it-yourselfers shouldn’t attempt to repair any sort of electronic device. This argument is flawed for many reasons. Most people are very capable of following directions and that is the most vital thing in most modern electronics repair. Furthermore, if companies are concerned with the safety of their products, then they should include information about how to identify and replace hazardous components.[2] Lastly, the Right to Repair movement recognizes that some forms of technology may be overly difficult for most people to repair. In these circumstances, the movement simply wishes to provide trained independent technicians with the appropriate information that will enable them to do their job. After all, in the age of mass information, it will quickly become obvious to someone doing Internet research which items can be repaired by ambitious amateurs and which ones require professional attention.

Currently, politicians across the country have recognized the strength of the arguments behind the Right to Repair and have come out in support of it. One of the strongest ongoing efforts is in Nebraska. Republican state senator Lydia Brasch has been one of the biggest proponents of digital right-to-repair law. Her fight started when her family’s $300,000 dollar combine broke down and it took a day to bring in an authorized technician with the necessary diagnostic equipment.[5] In critical times of harvest, farmers literally cannot afford to be without equipment that they are so heavily invested in. When major tech companies heard about Brasch’s bill, they praised her efforts and said that they were fine with her regulating the tractor business. They were under the impression that her efforts would be limited to farm equipment. However, they were sorely mistaken and Brasch was quoted as saying, “People here…we try to do the right thing.”[5]  In her opinion, it is not moral to grant special provisions to tech companies just because they have powerful lobbies. Presently, numerous states around the country have taken up the torch and support has arisen from diverse ideological bases. Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Wyoming have all proposed some form of digital right to repair legislation.

[1]We Have the Right to Repair Everything We Own.IFIXITORG. Web. 14 March. 2017.

[2]  Koebler, Jason. “How to Fix Everything.Motherboard. Vice, 24 November. 2015. Web. 16 March. 2017.

[3] Perkins, Bart. “Fight for your right to repair.” Computerworld. IDG Communications, 23 November 2015. Web. 16 March. 2017.

[4] Doctorow, Cory. “Three states considering “right to repair” laws that would decriminalize fixing your stuff.Boingboing. 23 January. 2017. Web. 21 March. 2017.

[5] Bray, Hiawatha. “You gotta fight for the right to repair your digital devices.The Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, 23 February. 2017 Web. 22 March. 2017