Effort to trace 'conflict minerals' in electronics

Hewlett-Packard is one of a few companies seeking certification that ensures metals used in their products do not fund the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

Hewlett-Packard's efforts to be more socially and environmentally sustainable have taken it to an unexpected--and uncomfortable--place: the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo.

Concerned that purchases of metals could be financing armed conflict in the West African country, HP and a handful of other companies are turning their attention to its suppliers of metals, including tin, gold, tantalum, and tungsten, which are used in everyday computing products and mobile phones.

At HP, it's an extension of an initiative that started over a decade ago to ensure that supply chain partners adhere to certain environmental and social standards. The near-term objective is to not purchase metals tied to armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but there's a longer-term goal of certifying the source for minerals of all kinds, according to Zoe McMahon, HP's manager of supply chain social and environmental responsibility.

Proceeds from illegal mining operations, which are controlled by military factions, are helping fuel a complex conflict that crosses between the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Rwanda.

HP felt pressure to act from outside groups, including enterprise customers, investors, and non-government groups pushing for more transparency of suppliers in the IT industry. In its investigation, HP decided to focus primarily on the source of tantalum because it is used far more than other metals, specifically in capacitors.

An initial review done a few years ago indicated that HP's metals purchases were not directly linked to the mines in question, and thus not directly contributing to the violence. But as the violence escalated, HP looked further and the picture became somewhat hazy.

"Because our suppliers are not using material from the DRC, that gave us some comfort. But to this day, there is still no certification mechanism that can assure us wholeheartedly that they are not sourced from the DRC," said McMahon. "Once metals are with smelters, it's difficult to know where the material comes from."

The push toward "traceability" in the metals extraction is an outgrowth of HP's practices of auditing its supply chain partners to make sure they do not contribute to human rights and environmental violations, said McMahon. By auditing its suppliers, HP reduces its chances of bad publicity or seeks to avoid other business risks. Other IT-related companies that have worked on the DRC conflict minerals issue include Intel, Motorola, Dell, and Philips, she added.

At this point, local groups don't advocate that metals purchasers stop buying from Africa or the DRC. On the contrary, the goal is to establish a "clean stream" of metals and promote environmentally and socially responsible mining practices there, said McMahon.

Rooting out the sources of tantalum
Within the overall IT industry, there have been a number of efforts to lighten the environmental footprint of computing, with the most visible being development of more energy-efficient computers.

Also, as awareness over the impact of exported electronic waste has grown, there have been efforts to certify recyclers. State regulations have also led to an increase in local electronics recycling options.

But the issue of metals traceabilty is very challenging, admits McMahon. Getting reliable information is not easy, particularly when you consider the complexity of the supply chain. A laptop computer, for example, could have 15 suppliers for its main components. Each one of those suppliers has multiple suppliers, which in turn can have suppliers. All told, a single product could be sourced from dozens of places.

Funding to create maps and audit different facilities relies in large part on U.S. government funding, which is uncertain even though there are conflict minerals bills under consideration and there has been diplomatic pressure on this issue in Africa.

There are, however, some efforts that could serve as a template for IT industry-specific certifications, said McMahon. The Electronics Industry Citizen Coalition is preparing a report, due to come out next month, that creates maps to trace the path of tin to market. Next month, representatives from the tantalum supply chain industry will meet with EICC members in an effort to create a sourcing certification to be applied in the DRC.

The hope is that the electronics industry can pressure other industries, such as aerospace, jewelry, and automotive, to pursue certification, said McMahon.

"We have some gaps in our understanding of our products and we want to continue filling gaps (from suppliers)," she said. "Who isn't in the room [discussing the issue] are the traders in the DRC, that's the hard part. In pulling together all parts of the tantalum supply chain, it's been evident that greater action is needed."