Letting the public know where the minerals in their electronics come from will pressure raw material producers to operate safe, humanitarian mining and processing facilities, and encourage end-product manufacturers to buy from those who do.
Consumers today are participants in the global socio-political ecosystem, whether they choose to be or not. Due to the rise of multifaceted, international companies with operations around the world, decisions made in a mall in Oregon can affect the policies of leaders in Zaire. Modern shoppers are aware that purchasing a product is supporting that brand, and when given a choice, most people are reluctant to buy from companies they see as engaging in unsavory or morally questionable business practices - as evident in periodic backlashes against providers of unethically sourced materials. Providing consumers with accurate, digestible information about what they're buying is key to stopping suppliers who routinely violate human rights and environmental sanctity. A UN task force should be established to monitor supply chains, from mine to finished product, and offer a "seal of approval" to end-product manufacturers who utilize only acceptably-sourced materials.
Monitoring business practices is not a new idea. Governments everywhere, on all scales, have some role in regulating business, primarily for humanitarian and environmental reasons. However, this is complicated when dealing with international trade, with different national governments holding different standards of human rights and environmental policy. Consumer watchdog groups often jump on businesses whose practices they believe violate certain moral standards; the problem is making this information readily available to consumers.
Apple's supply chain in China can be seen as a recent example of this. A number of workers got sick after inhaling a noxious chemical they were using to clean touch screens; once media and consumer groups got wind of this, it touched off more media and consumer investigation into Apple's supply chain problems, especially as Apple rushed to produce the iPhone 5 and sacrificed worker safety in the name of efficiency and low prices. Global outrage among consumers ensued, and as a result Apple has begun looking into its supply chain with the assistance of third party groups and has promised to make changes to comply with human rights and environmental standards. The effectiveness of such changes remains to be seen, but this is exactly the kind of response from both consumers and corporations that is required to enact the changes necessary in mining and production standards (Watts, 2011) (Moore, 2012).
The best plan would be to centralize investigation of environmental and human rights violations in the supply chain of strategic elements and technologies that use them, rather than wait for the media to uncover atrocities as in the Apple case or for companies to go in and fix their own supply chains of their own volition. This information must then be made public and readily accessible, in order to harness consumer pressure as an effective, cheap, and non-bureaucratic force. The most critical supply chains at the moment seem to be those utilizing tantalum, a conflict mineral, as well as those in which corporations are more directly responsible for human rights violations and environmental degradation, as in the case of Apple's supply chain. Supply chains that involve rare earth and other strategic elements are particularly affected due to several well-documented cases of human rights violations. Furthermore, these will be the supply chains where the public opinion can have the most impact, because these are supply chains which the everyday consumer interacts with every time they buy electronics. Consumers tend to feel more personally responsible for the supply chains they directly support.
The costs of auditing supply chains should be minimal, and primarily borne by companies that wish to be reflected well in global consumer reports. Because this solution relies simply on the dissemination of information and not strict regulations (although, at the insistence of consumers, these may come later), it is not expensive.
Proposal and Projected Effects
Mission 2016 recommends a UN task force be set up to audit supply chains, especially those of technological products. They should publish reports and make all information easily accessible to the public, most likely via the Web. This will be a voluntary process-- for a fee, companies can apply to have their supply chain audited. This is both to save costs and to give benefits to those companies who choose to join the auditing process early-- namely, they will be considered responsible companies by consumers and as such can gain a larger share of the market early on due to their responsibility. This is not an outrageous thing to suppose companies will due, especially considering the history of recent backlashes against all sorts of products with morally questionable supply chains.
This project could be implemented quickly, as it does not require any technological developments. In fact, it is important that this proposal be put into effect soon, where it can have the most impact before other developments change the supply chains or their end products.
A proposed timeline would look like this:
2015-- UN task force set up
2020-- a significant percentage of technology companies (especially "brand names"-- like Apple) have opted in
2025-- supply chain of at least brand name companies is cleaned up; new standards have been set for the industry as a whole
Moore, M. (2012, January 27). Apple 'attacking problems' at its factories in china. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/9043924/Apple-attacking-problems-at-its-factories-in-China.html
Watts, J. (2011, January 19). Apple secretive about 'polluting and poisoning' supply chain, says report.The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/20/apple-pollution-supply-chain