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!



4 thoughts on “Conflict Minerals – Intel’s “Less Bad” Intentions

  1. Good post Adam,

    Awareness is key and more transparency allows consumers to make informed decisions. As for equating “self-lauding” with greenwashing – I somewhat disagree. Manufacturing and sourcing method are highly proprietary (and hidden). If firms like Intel sets goals to clean up these processes, I applaud them. As long as their intentions are true (and can be verified by neutral parties.)

    • Thanks for the comment Mitch, it is well-taken. I’ll follow up with two points.

      I fully agree “self-lauding” is not inherently greenwashing. Firms need to be able to communicate the good they do. In fact, in many cases, the goodwill generated is the biggest way they see ROI on their investment. However, if the claim they are making is spurious, then it is greenwashing. An example relevant to this case would be “CFC-Free”. It’s an irrelevant claim because CFC’s are banned in most jurisdictions anyhow.

      To your second point, in the semiconductor business for example, there is a strong movement towards full disclosure. Firms like Tyco and Vishay are already there (on Conflict Minerals too!). Manufacturing processes are proprietary, but with regulations like RoHS, REACH, EPEAT, Conflict Minerals, etc. on one end, and then firms like GE and Siemens demanding full disclosure, convoluted supply chains with sketchy traceability are becoming untenable. As the “Green” movement grows and major suppliers move towards full life-cycle analysis and disclosure, this trend will perpetuate throughout the broader consumer market.

  2. Thoughtful piece. I particularly like your observations on “less-bad” behaviour – we (society) seem to have set the bar very low for corporations, and few are calling them on it. I second your recommendation on “The Story of Stuff” – the book too is excellent.

    For an ethical economy (or ‘clean capitalism’) have a look at:

    For conflict minerals specifically, try:

    • Thanks, Jason. Those are good suggestions. However, I recall being a little skeptical of The Corporate Knights, as I feel they tend to have “pro-business” bliders on a little too much for my taste. An example would be their list of the Top 50 Best Corporate Citizens in Canada, their methodology is skewed heavily towards fiscal performance (you need to have revenues of $2Billion+, and be listed on the TSX to even play), and their metrics for negative environmental and social impacts are too narrow. For this reason, their list reads like a who’s who of the Canadian energy sector.

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