Conflict minerals in the ICT supply chain

To produce a glittering array of high-tech devices — from smartphones to laptops — the information and communication technology (ICT) industry needs minerals.

Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold are among those used in many ICT products, with the ICT industry consuming 50 to 60 per cent of the world’s tantalum, close to 26 per cent of its tin, and 9 per cent of the gold mined each year.

One of the large sources of these minerals is the Great Lakes region of Africa and, in particular, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A thriving and sustainable supply chain for these minerals can provide livelihoods for many local people.

However, if existing regulations are not enforced, and production, transport and trade of the minerals are mismanaged, then the result can be socio-economic and environmental instability.

Mining prospectors and investors of all kinds compete for these minerals.

The ICT supply chain for tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold is complex because minerals change hands as many as seven times as they are processed into metals and then ICT products. In some cases, these minerals are mined with informal or no method of traceability, making it a challenge to determine their source.

This has led to the origin of all minerals from this region being considered suspect, and to the media and non-governmental organizations referring to tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold from the African Great Lakes region as “conflict minerals”.

Early campaigning by non-governmental organizations raised concerns about the devastating effects that artisanal and small-scale mining was having on critical ecosystems and irreplaceable flora and fauna.

Today, the conflict minerals narrative focuses on human rights concerns.

A new report titled “Greening ICT supply chains — Survey on conflict minerals due diligence initiatives”, reviews the various due diligence initiatives relating to conflict minerals, and looks at the way the ICT industry is managing its supply chain in that context.

They see the need for leadership to ensure that the environmental dimension of sustainability is not neglected in the ICT supply chain.

Individual ICT company responses to the growing public and regulatory awareness of the problems with supply chains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have varied.

Some companies are working to improve transparency in their supply chains, with certain companies acting as leaders on conflict minerals for the industry.

ICT companies are also progressively improving their supply chains in various ways. For example Dell, Cisco, Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard, Philips, Intel, Motorola and Nokia are visiting smelters. Companies such as Hitachi are working with suppliers to improve transparency. Hewlett-Packard and Intel, among others, publish lists of their suppliers.

Current international concern in regard to supply chains originating from the African Great Lakes region is focused on conflict and human rights aspects, rather than environmental impact.

Similarly, ICT companies are not, in general, looking at the environmental dimension of sustainability.

This opens up an opportunity for ITU, together with its partners in the United Nations system, to provide leadership in closing this gap.

Full story on conflict minerals in the ICT supply chain

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