Most people do not know about where things they use every day come from. While this is partially due to lack of concern, in many cases the information is obscured by companies concerned about competitors and concerned with hiding unethical practices. This means that consumers who would like to be environmentally and socially conscious do not ever have the opportunity, and companies that engage in deplorable practices are allowed to continue without financial pressure. In the democratic countries from which most offending companies originate, the lack of voter awareness enables them to complacently continue their unethical practices, because they do not face voter pressure to have regulatory policies.
Description of Problem
The vast majority of consumers are uninformed about rare earths, conflict minerals, and phosphorus scarcity, and thus are led to make uninformed purchasing decisions regarding electronics.
Because companies deliberately do not disclose the sources of materials used in their products (especially if those sources might be ethically questionable), those few consumers who do know about the problems associated with strategic minerals are still unable to make informed decisions. (Mission 2016 attempted to contact the PR divisions of several electronics companies regarding sources of rare earths, and none of them replied.) Both the lack of active concern from unbiased parties and the fact that most companies use material sourced from many different locations, make it nearly impossible to follow the supply chain from a finished product back to its source. At best, one is able to generalize the ethical problems associated with a specific supply chain, but this does not help the environmentally- and socially-conscious consumer with his or her buying practices, because it is difficult to distinguish companies that are complicit in these malpractices from those which are regulating and maintaining high production standards.
Informed consumption will only help promote ethical mining and production practices to an extent. When choosing between two products of comparable quality and price, people may be willing to choose the product that they know was produced without worker exploitation and environmental pollution. However, since consumers are not crying out for products only made from environmentally- and socially-conscious mineral mining practices, it is vastly to a company's advantage to keep consumers in the dark and continue to use practices that lower their prices, regardless of environmental and humanitarian costs.
Without public awareness, legislators will not talk about strategic resources in public discourse, and lobbyists from mining companies will have the only voices in governmental decisions. Without voices counterpoint to mining, refining, and manufacturing companies, there is nothing holding them accountable for their actions. Until the public has information on the practices of different companies and a system is in place to give them this information, the status quo will remain unchanged.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an existing, international organization that assigns standards to companies, assuring the rest of the corporate world that they are in compliance with one of the hundreds of possible codes to which they are assigned. They charge the corporations for the service, and many corporations willingly pay. This is not very effective, given that most consumers have no idea what type of codes the companies from whom they are buying comply with, but it provides evidence that this kind of endeavor can pay for itself.
For more information, visit http://www.iso.org/iso/home/standards.htm.
The Electronic Industry Citizens' Coalition (EICC) has begun what they call a Conflict-Free Smelter Program, which attempts to address responsible materials sourcing by tracing materials through their supply chains and back to their original sources. This program involves several large electronics corporations and shows promise, but it still has not reached the consumer sufficiently to affect the change needed. It instead focuses on what corporations can do alone to change things, and this, without consumer pressure, will not provide enough of an economic incentive for real change.
For more information, visit http://www.eicc.info/CFSProgram.shtml.
Case Study: Tantalum in the DRC
Almost all common consumer electronics utilize tantalum capacitors. Approximately one fifth of this tantalum comes directly or indirectly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2008). Mined by brutal militias, tantalum from the DRC directly funds systematic rape and murder of the Congolese (Kristof, Nicholas D., 2010). If there was more widespread consumer awareness of these horrific human rights violations, as well as accessible information on which companies buy Congolese tantalum, consumers might buy less tantalum products or opt to buy products made using Australian tantalum instead, discouraging worker exploitation by Congolese militias.
Cost of inaction
The cost of inaction is not measured so much in dollars as in the deterioration of the quality of environments and human lives. If nothing is done, unethical business practices will continue to lead to large human costs. Furthermore, environmental damage will become more and more expensive to reverse as it continues to accrue.
Testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on the Congo: (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2008) http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08562t.pdf
(Kristof, Nicholas D., 2010) 'Blood diamonds' have faded away, but we may now be carrying 'blood phones.' - NYT editorial: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/opinion/27kristof.html
Born Free report on the effect of coltan mining on endangered gorillas: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/uploads/media/coltan.pdf
International Rescue Committee special report on the Congo (primary source): http://www.rescue.org/special-reports/special-report-congo-y
Issues with the Lynas refinery, from engineers - NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/business/global/30rare.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
(U.S. Geological Survey, 2012) USGS page: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/niobium/