Electronics industry under pressure to trace the source of its metals

Until now, global electronics firms have paid little attention to tracing the source of the metals they use in their products. A group of NGOs is determined to put the issue on their agenda.

A coalition of NGOs has challenged electronics firms to trace the source of metals they use in products. MakeITFair, consisting of organisations from Europe, India, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is working on a three-year project to research the whole supply chain of consumer electronics.

The global electronics industry consumes a growing proportion of the world’s metals. In 2007, MakeITFair published reports highlighting problems with platinum, cobalt and tin mines, which it linked to consumer electronics.

In Indonesia, for example, tin mining has destroyed protected forests and mine waste has caused extensive marine damage. Almost half of the tin mined globally is used to make solder, of which 70% is used in the electronics industry.

In South Africa, MakeITFair points to the vast amount of waste generated by platinum mining. For every ounce of platinum mined, more than 150 tonnes of waste and sulphur dioxide is produced. The platinum was traced to all major computer brands. The sector buys about 18% of the world’s platinum.

Yet despite the plethora of supply chain initiatives that have emerged from the consumer electronics sector, few seek to reduce the environmental impacts of metal mining. Supplier codes of conduct are generally applied to just first- and second-tier suppliers and do not engage directly with raw material buyers.

MakeITFair says this means firms are not addressing some of their supply chains’ most pressing problems. In April, it published a list of priorities that it wants firms to absorb into corporate policies. On environmental issues, it calls on firms to:

Recognise their duty to extend supply chain management to include sourcing and mining of metals.

Make efforts to increase the traceability of metals.

Source metals from mining companies that adhere to schemes such as the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance.

Ensure mining firms in their supply chains do not dump mine wastes into water bodies; do not contaminate water, soil or air with toxic materials; cover site remediation costs; and disclose projects’ social and environmental impacts.

Reduce use of metals from environmentally sensitive areas.

Develop action plans to tackle the issues in the extractives phase of their supply chains.

Companies are reviewing the principles and are likely to respond collectively via the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSi), a grouping of 22 firms aiming to "further sustainable development" in the information and communication technology sector.

Many of the firms ENDS contacted about their metal sourcing policies pointed to a study, expected to be published in a few months, as a sign they are becoming active on the issue.

The report, commissioned by GeSi and the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct, will assess the mining industry and what role the electronics industry could have in influencing it. It will concentrate on aluminium, cobalt, copper, gold, palladium and tin.

The key challenge for firms is the lack of supply chain transparency. A Nokia spokesperson said "it is often impossible to trace the original mine that supplied metals because of the way metals are sold by different producers or through central exchanges".

But in the past the industry has claimed some degree of traceability is possible. When conservationists called on the mobile phone sector to take responsibility for the devastating impact of mining the metallic ore columbite-tantalite (coltan) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ENDS Report 340, p 34 ), high-street names claimed they had stopped buying the ore from the region.

Mobile phone firms Nokia, Vodafone, Motorola and O2 all told ENDS they accepted they have a role to play. Of the computer firms contacted, only HP responded to questions on metal sourcing. HP recently surveyed the supply chains of its electronic notebooks to identify which countries its metals come from. It says it is now trying to trace the metal to individual mines.

While the firms believe the influence they can exert on mines is limited there is a growing willingness for industry-wide action. Motorola has called for an extensive "conversation" with all actors in the metals supply chain. HP says efforts to influence practices of concern should be taken by the entire industry.

Other end users of metals are becoming interested in supply chain issues. The UK steel sector, driven by the concerns of some big construction firms (ENDS Report 396, pp 34-36 ), is working with the Eden Project and others on a responsible sourcing scheme for steel (ENDS Report 398, p 27 ).

The Eden Project tested the concept of metal traceability for the copper used in one of its buildings. It is now in the early phases of assessing the wider concept of metal supply chain stewardship after it secured EU funding recently.

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