Conflict Minerals – Intel’s “Less Bad” Intentions

This week the popular Corporate Sustainability communications group Triple Pundit published a rather saccharine piece, lauding Intel for achieving a supply chain free from Conflict Minerals. Wow. (Insert slow clap here). Well, sounds good, right? Well… yes… But does Intel really deserve all of the love?

If you follow social justice and/or Conflict_Mineralshigh-tech news, you’ve probably heard of Conflict Minerals by now. Tin, Tungsten, Tanatlum & Gold – all used in your favourite electronic devices, and all mined by slave labor in a black market minerals trade by DRC warlords. These minerals are the “blood diamonds” of the electronics industry. As part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, measures to restrict the movement of conflict minerals were introduced in 2010 under Section 1502. Since then, the issue of conflict minerals has received increasing attention.

Intel’s CEO announced in January at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show that they are leading the way to being 100% “Conflict Free”, and he has challenged his competitors to do the same. Intel’s commitment to conflict free has been laudable, don’t get me wrong. They adopted a principled stance on the issue early on, and supply chains for metals can be extremely complicated things to untangle. Intel even bucked their own industry association, who has fought The SEC on conflict minerals all the way.

So, should Intel be congratulated for leading the way on adopting a conflict minerals policy? Do we generally congratulate people for not stealing, murdering or being generally unhelpful to society? No, because ethical behaviour is generally expected of us. Reporting on conflict minerals isn’t a suggestion, it’s the law. So, why should we feel we have to congratulate companies for not displaying wanton disregard for human life, the environment, or all-around decency – much less obeying the law? Maybe it’s because we are so used to them acting in ways generally considered psychopathic at best, criminal at worst, we feel the need to laud the firms that are the least badconsumerism

When a firm pats themselves on the back for obeying the law, much less broader social mores, it is the worst type of greenwashing, because it is insincere, it presupposes that others are getting away with such behaviour with our tacit knowledge and implied consent, and therefore assumes its customers are amoral, mindlessly consuming imbeciles. It also demonstrates that our regulatory system is broken. As consumers we must demand better than “less bad”. The worst part of it is, unless you live in a tree, they’ve got you pegged. You, me, every one of us. So, what are we going to do about it?

Resources for Ethical Purchasing

To find out more about Conflict Minerals and related issues, the true heroes doing the heavy lifting are Global Witness. These folks are on the front lines – risking life and limb to report goings on in some of the world’s most dangerous and corrupt corners.

When it comes to making ethical purchasing choices, the best choice is to start with The Three “R’s”, upcycle, or buy used. If you must buy new, the best thing you can do is educate yourself, and in turn, others. A great place to start is a series of videos called “The Story of Stuff”.

There are lots of organizations doing great work to shed light, or bring about an ethical economy, here’s a few.  If you know of a great one, let me know!