We all use electronic devices like mobile phones, but where do the materials that make them come from? Tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold are the four most common 'conflict minerals', known collectively as 3TGs. Their mining causes insecurity and human rights abuses in many regions. Armed groups clash over their illegal trade. Fairphone is one manufacturer which takes responsibility to ensure its supply chains extract minerals lawfully. The European Parliament is pushing for more transparency in supply chains through mandatory OECD due diligence systems.
They are called the 3T&G for tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. They are widely used in our mobile phones and many other high-tech products. But these four minerals have a darker side. In several regions of the world, conflicts between armed groups involved in their illegal trade are a major cause of insecurity, poverty and human rights abuses. For the European Parliament, it’s high time for action. The European Parliament has a legitimate and very important goal, to break the link between the trade of minerals which are very important for our industries and the financing of conflict and degradation of human beings. We absolutely need to get regulations in place that will guarantee that the products we consume have not been complicit in these conflicts within the countries of origin. As long ago as 2014, a voluntary due-diligence system was proposed by the Commission to encourage larger European manufacturers to avoid conflict minerals. What has happened since then? The initial proposal of the European Commission was a little bit modest, so we had to step up with this proposal. What has been achieved was related to 'upstream' companies, so early on in the chain, there is an obligation to do due diligence. This means smelters and refiners, but it also means importers of minerals and metals. We have to address the upstream because after this, the origins of the minerals cannot be recognised. Our goal is to ensure that the entire chain is clean, thus creating a 'downstream' ripple effect, to the companies at the end of the chain. These are the ones who ultimately sell our phones, tablets, etc. Can the strategy succeed? What are the effects on the ground? To get answers, we visited a company that decided to apply the due diligence guidelines a few years ago. Fairphone started as a campaign around conflict minerals and we decided to make our own product, to enable us to address the issues that we saw happening in the industry. At a time when many manufacturers were simply boycotting the regions affected by conflict, the company chose a radically different approach. In those areas, a lot of people are very dependent on income from mining, it's a main part of their livelihoods, which is why we wanted to source from these areas and make this step to prove that it is possible to source from these areas in a more responsible way. It took years to set up certified supply chains. So what we do is that we engage with component manufacturers to understand the exact supply chain of a certain material and that way we are able to trace it up to the refiner. On the ground, concrete and sustainable results have gradually emerged. We can see that a lot of the conflict actors have moved out of a lot of types of mining, which actually enables communities to earn that income again. Another crucial question concerns the criteria with which the industry will have to work. We worked with reference materials issued by the OECD, which state: ‘okay, these are the questions that you need to ask if you are a producer or consumer of 3T&G’. There are also other areas of concern for an industry that considers it has already made a considerable effort. Our industry was already doing due diligence programs on a voluntary basis. How exactly will the schemes be recognised? If they are OECD compatible, if they are fit for the purpose, the European Commission will recognise the schemes. The majority of the smelters are based in Asia and they are not obliged to follow these rules. If they want to be able to supply to the European market, they will have to be certified. This does not mean that we are going to solve all the problems in Africa with these regulations, but in any case, if we can help stop the funding of armed groups who are raping, killing, and exploiting people, then I think that Europe will have gained by doing business with values.