In the jungles and mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, battles are raging, part of a 13-year-long civil war. Most of the world has paid little attention to the murder and rape that still dominates life in the DRC's eastern provinces. But U.S. electronics companies like HP, Intel, and Apple recently became deeply interested, thanks to a provision on "conflict minerals" that was slipped into a 2010 financial reform law, the Dodd-Frank Act.
The minerals provision is intended to deprive the Congo's warlords of funds by cutting off sales from the mines they control. It focuses on the ores that produce the "three Ts": tin, tantalum, and tungsten, as well as gold. Public companies that use these metals in their products will be required to investigate their supply chains, determine if they use metals that were mined in the DRC, and disclose their findings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in their annual reports, and on their websites. If its minerals did originate in the DRC, a company must submit a larger report on whether the purchase of these minerals financed or benefited armed groups in that part of Africa. The SEC is expected to issue final rules for implementing the law before the end of the year, and companies are scrambling to get ready.
While the conflict minerals law applies only to companies that are required to file annual reports in the United States, it's expected to have an international impact. Since mineral suppliers sell to electronics companies around the world, any change in operations they make for the U.S. market will have ripple effects elsewhere.
The law doesn't only affect the electronics industry. But the conflict mineral issue has been linked in the public mind to electronics because the three Ts play crucial roles in smartphones, TVs, and laptops. Tin is used in solder and thus found on every circuit board, tantalum is used in capacitors, and tungsten is used in the vibrating motors of many phones.
Electronics companies had been warned that they'd eventually have to account for their use of these minerals. So firms like HP and Intel asked the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, two trade groups, to investigate the industry's options.
The groups found that it's extremely difficult to determine the origin of the tantalum used in a certain batch of smartphones. But they also realized that only about 45 smelters worldwide deal with the three Ts, buying the ores from suppliers and turning them into pure metals. After several years of research, the industry groups came up with the Conflict-Free Smelter Program, which is currently in the pilot phase for its first metal, tantalum.
The program asks each smelter to allow an annual independent audit of its mineral procurement process. If the auditors are convinced that no minerals are sourced from the Congo's conflict mines, that smelter is certified as "conflict free," allowing companies to buy its metals without worry. While the program is voluntary, EICC spokeswoman Wendy Dittmer says many smelting firms believe it's in their interest to participate.
"Electronics companies are starting to ask questions all the way down their supply chains," she says. "That certainly makes the buyers of the minerals very interested in being able to talk about their own due diligence."
There are concerns that the law may backfire. By making the reporting requirements more onerous for companies that source minerals from the DRC, the law may reduce demand from all DRC mines, even those that aren't in conflict regions and don't finance armed groups.
These concerns about such a de facto ban led Motorola Solutions to initiate the Solutions for Hope Project, in which Motorola and several other companies formed a relationship with a conflict-free tantalum mine in the DRC's Katanga province.
To establish the program, Michael Loch, Motorola's director of supply-chain corporate responsibility, visited the mine and accompanied a shipment of ore along its export route. "This pilot allows our industry to stay engaged in the area," says Loch. "We didn't want to abandon the region." But he acknowledges that it took a lot of effort to get the process in place for one mine and says it may be difficult to scale up the program.
The pilot programs should provide a framework to make compliance easier. Still, companies around the world are waiting for the SEC's final rules with some anxiety. And there may be some efforts to block the rules' enforcement through U.S. courts. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for one, has discussed the possibility of a lawsuit. The chamber disagrees with the SEC's initial compliance cost estimate of US $71 million, saying that costs will instead be counted in the billions of dollars.
One thing is already certain about the SEC rules: There will be no fines for using conflict minerals. Even so, activists think it will have its intended effect, because companies will want to avoid bad publicity.
"For years we have been unknowing consumers of these minerals because companies have turned a blind eye," says Sasha Lezhnev, a policy consultant on conflict minerals with the human rights group Enough. "This will enable consumers to make choices on whether or not to buy products from companies that are sourcing from these mines."