A group of Dutch entrepreneurs has hang-ups about where the minerals in your phone come from. From Deutsche Welle Radio’s Living Planet, Cintia Taylor reports on the push for phones produced without minerals from conflict areas.
GELLERMAN: There’s fair trade coffee, fair trade chocolate, even fair trade clothing – products sourced by importers trying to guarantee fair pay and decent treatment for farmers and workers in developing countries. Well, now a Dutch team is applying the principles of the fair trade philosophy to mobile phones to combat what’s called "the conflict mineral trade." From the Deutsche Welle Radio program “Living Planet,” Cintia Taylor reports.
[PHONE RINGS: Hello?]
TAYLOR: It’s estimated that there are over five billion mobile phone in the whole world. And in several countries, the number of these devices exceeds the number of people.
[PHONE RINGS: Talking in another language, voices overlap]
TAYLOR: Frequently, the very beginning of a mobile phone’s production chain is in Central Africa. There, some 300 thousand people make their living by mining for the minerals that are used in the components of our phones. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the mining business has helped finance and fuel the country’s ongoing conflict. Extraction is mainly controlled by the rebels or the government’s own military forces. Nathalie Ankersmit is from the Dutch Institute for Southern Africa.
ANKERSMIT: Every party, whether it’s the Congolese Army, or whether it’s the rebellions or militias, they use the illegal trade in minerals to finance their, well, their human rights abuses. And especially, the local population is victim of these abuses. There are mass rapes of women and children in the local villages, to make sure that these villages are loyal to a certain militia or a certain group of army people. And, that’s why the term ‘blood mobiles’ has suddenly turned up in media.
ABEL: When you look at all the circuits in your telephone, they use copper for it. Forty percent of all of the copper reserves are in Congo, and cobalt as well, and a lot of your cobalt comes from Congo which is being used for…
TAYLOR: That’s Bas Van Abel, creative director at the Waag Society in Amsterdam. He’s explaining to me where we can find minerals in our mobile phones.
ABEL: A lot of the stuff which is being used are minerals. And I think that there are more than 20 to 22 minerals used on average in every telephone. You have to do a lot of reverse engineering. Because that’s one of the problems that phone companies don’t give a list of the stuff that they have in their phones. And that’s also one of the things that we need to change, that also the big phone builders and production companies give insight into what they are using. And also who they buy from.
There are about 5 billion cell phones worldwide. (Photo: Mr. Thomas, Flickr Creative Commons)
TAYLOR: Bas and Nathalie’s organizations have joined forces against the use of conflict minerals in electronics, and that’s how Fair Phone was born. Just like the name suggests, it’s an initiative that aims to produce the world’s first ethical phone. According to Bas, the key to the project is not a new invention, but a new way of doing business.
ABEL: The easiest part of this whole project would be creating a phone. Because phones are already created, you know, the production process is there. The problem is it’s not transparent, and the working conditions and the fairness around it, that’s where the problem starts. So, if you want to make a fair phone, you have to use, you have to change all the production for all these 22 minerals.
TAYLOR: But a change in production can also mean added costs, something that doesn’t go down well in corporations.
TAYLOR: Nokia’s good, clean image has been severely impacted since the problem surrounding conflict minerals came to light, but it still ranks as one of the most environmentally friendly companies in the sector and it has banned Congolese minerals in its production. And while critics and activists claim it still has a long way to go, spokesman Jorgen Thiesman says the company is already producing the fairest phone possible.
THIESMAN: No company can give a 100 percent guarantee that there are no conflict minerals in their components, but we don’t allow our suppliers and their suppliers to source minerals from conflict areas. One of the things that we as a company have done already, it’s investing in R&D so that we can reduce the components that have these minerals in them, that we reduce them form, for instance, six components that were used in 2001 in a mobile phone, to one or two components now.
TAYLOR: Nokia says it also has a tagging system in place to ensure the origin of the minerals and that it orders its supplies regularly. But it admits that it’s a hard process to track down properly.
THIESMANN: If you look at the process, the real challenge is in what happens between the mine and the smelter. Because once the minerals are smelted into metals, you cannot trace them anymore. So it’s really important that you make sure that a control mechanism is in place between the mine and the actual smelter.
[COMMOTION: MINE AUCTION]
TAYLOR: It is this initial stage of the production chain that Fair Phone is now trying to tackle. They’ve recently traveled to the Congolese province of Katanga where cobalt is mined. Cobalt is an essential component for mobile phones’ batteries. They bought a bag of it directly from the mineworkers, which they’ll use later on the Fair Phone. At Bas’s office, his colleagues are also looking to the possibility of making the phone cards more replaceable, so that broken components can be replaced without throwing out a whole phone. The team doesn’t know yet when the first Fair Phone will hit the shelves, but they’re optimistic that it will be sooner, rather than later. Cintia Taylor, Amsterdam.
GELLERMAN: Our report on the conflict mineral trade and mobile phones comes to us courtesy of the Deutsche Welle Radio program Living Planet.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
E-mail: [email protected]
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an autographed copy of Mark Seth Lender's Salt Marsh Diary - A Year on the Connecticut Coast, plus a signed copy of one of his wildlife photographs.