Tucked into the financial reform legislation that President Obama signed into law were rules that require companies to disclose whether their products are manufactured from “conflict minerals” — essentially metals and materials that come from the war-torn Congo.
Conflict minerals has emerged in recent years as the electronics industry’s “dirty little secret.” While many gadget makers have updated their manufacturing processes to eliminate toxic materials, improve efficiency, reduce waste and promote recyclability, the source of the raw materials they use has come under scrutiny. The mineral trade is energy and resource intensive in and of itself, plus the impact to the environment can be damaging, but conflict minerals from the Congo add a new wrinkle: human atrocities.
The mineral trade in the region is known to support military operations. Making matters worse are the scale of human suffering and incomprehensible acts of violence, which are well-documented. I encourage you to visit Merlin USA for a look at the challenges of saving lives in the Congo. (Full disclosure: I worked as an editor for the non-profit.)
As I wrote at GigaOM Pro (sub req’d), the electronics industry faces the challenge of not only producing greener electronics, but also avoiding the negative association of supporting violence in the Congo, however indirectly. When asked about issue, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs admitted that “It’s a very difficult problem.” Now it looks like there’s a solution at hand.
Of course, there is a downside. According to a story from the Associated Press, companies are pulling away from the entire region, even those areas unaffected by violence. However, the new law should help accelerate the development of tracking mechanisms so that companies can clean up their supply chains and support operations with no connection to the conflict.
In all, good karma for electronics makers and consumers alike.
Image credit: Enough Project – Flickr – CC License