FT: Apple to name-and-shame suppliers of ‘conflict minerals’

Thursday, 13 February, 2014

In the eternal below-the-line internet war between rival consumers of Apples and PCs - iPhones and Samsungs, the chic and the geek - there’s always been a sense that the famous fruit fit the hipster ethos of home-grown ethically sourced faux-lumberjack beards and tight-jeaned self-righteousness, much to the benefit of the bottom line (famously, Apple was declared in 2011 to have greater cash reserves than the US government). This dominance took the form in some quarters of a moral victory in the quantum effort to reconcile a zeitgeist simultaneously encompassing looking like an 18th century farmer, the necessity never to eat anything that you didn’t grow or kill yourself (cf. the rise of the phrase “artisanal breads”), and serial purchases of £500 tablet computers. That aura took a knock, however, with stories a couple of years ago of a spate of suicides among workers in the Chinese megafactories in which these pieces of desirabilia are manufactured. (Transparency: the same factories also assemble for other high-profile electronics manufacturers, including Dell, HP, Nintendo, Nolkia and Sony).

Well: Apple is quite rightly taking back some of the moral high ground, according to an article in today’s Financial Times [paywall]: in a supply chain clean-up partly inspired by those suicides, the company is moving its focus beyond the Chinese factories and into African mines, “using name-and-shame tactics to cut the amount of “conflict minerals” that end up in its iPhones and iPads.”

In the article, Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice-president of operations, says that January 2014 was the first time Apple had been able to verify that none of the tantalum used in its devices came from mines in conflict regions. It’s now:

“...urging “conflict-free” audits for gold, tin and tungsten suppliers by publishing a list of all its suppliers’ smelters and their compliance with ethical sourcing guidelines every quarter.”

This is a hugely welcome step from the world’s most valuable technology company. Dodd Frank may have had some role in precipitating all this, requiring as it does that some US companies, one of which is indeed Apple, must provide information to the Securities and Exchange Commission about their use of conflict minerals by this May; but the electronics industry has been in the sights of rights campaigners for some time, and this represents a big, visible and encouraging step forward -especially given Apple’s public profile and influence. 

From the article again:

“The fastest way for Apple to become conflict-free would be to channel our demand through a couple of verified smelters,” Mr Williams said […] “But quite honestly, if we did that… it would do nothing to affect the workers on the ground. And so what we are focused on is getting a critical mass of suppliers verified such that we can truly influence the demand situation and change things.”

Here’s hoping that they do.

NB: More information is available here on the conflict-free smelter programme. In their own words:

Founded in 2008 by members of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative has grown into one of the most utilized and respected resources for companies from a range of industries addressing conflict minerals issues in their supply chains.

Our flagship Conflict-Free Smelter Program offers companies and their suppliers an independent, third-party audit that determines which smelters and refiners can be validated as “conflict-free,” in line with current global standards. We also offer our Conflict Minerals Reporting Template, which helps companies disclose and communicate about smelters in their supply chains, and we produce white papers and guidance documents on responsible conflict minerals sourcing and reporting on a regular basis.