Would you kill for your smartphone?

Smartphones are incredibly advanced devices, iPhone or Android, they are packed with advanced components manufactured using some of the world's rarest raw materials -- but in some cases the cost of those materials includes an inconceivable degree of human suffering.

Would you kill for your smartphone?

What's the cost?

I'm talking about conflict minerals: tantalum, tungsten, tin, and gold. These rare minerals are essential to a variety of consumer electronics, including your tablet and your phone.

Where do the minerals come from? Many are mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo inside a conflict zone in which kidnapping; mass rape, child soldiers, and mass murder are daily occurrences with as many as 5.4 million people killed so far.

The conflict is particularly tragic as despite being (per-capita) one of the poorest countries on the planet, the region is rich in natural resources, home to $24 trillion in value of untapped raw mineral deposits. The region is also rich in rare animal life, many now under threat of extinction as a by-product of almost 20-years of conflict.

Various armed groups extract these rare minerals to finance their armies. Once mined, minerals are despatched to smelters elsewhere, from which they eventually make their way into your products.

Numerous initiatives exist to audit these smelters to ensure they use minerals sourced outside of the conflict zones. These audit processes link directly to an incoming SEC rule demanding consumer electronics firms make public whether their supply chains are conflict-free. Set to become law in spring some big brands have begun to avoid using conflict minerals: Intel this month announced its processors are now conflict-free.

“Now that Intel has made the first conflict-free product,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said, “it’s important for Apple, Boeing, Tiffany, to make their own.”

Apple is working towards this and now demands suppliers only source from smelters that have passed conflict mineral audits. Most big brands are taking similar steps.

So do you have a little slice of conflict in your smartphone?

It remains possible.

The Enough Project rates consumer electronics firms for their attempts to mitigate use of these minerals. Assessed using a points system it is revealing to compare some key manufacturers:

  • RIM, 42 points
  • Apple, 38 points
  • Microsoft, 38 points
  • Motorola Mobility, 35 points
  • Nokia, 35 points
  • LG, 27 points
  • Samsung, 27 points.

It is clear both LG and Samsung have work to do. While Apple is one of just four firms that demand suppliers only source minerals from smelters that have passed conflict mineral audits, Samsung does not.

"In the long-term, Samsung Electronics plans to set up a monitoring system to track its suppliers’ use of conflict minerals," the company says.

This suggests that while it currently appears less likely your iPhone includes components derived from the conflict minerals, there's a possibility your Galaxy device will include them, as Samsung does not yet audit suppliers against the practise.

We should have a little more certainty on the matter from February/March when firms will be required to tell us about the conflict-free status of their products (though almost half of the firms doing business in the US "aren't ready" to say). 

When this information does become available, most smartphone users will have to ask themselves if the convenience of receiving a fast and immediate Facebook update justifies the human and environmental cost of their device. And that's when customers will be able to ask if they'd kill for that smartphone.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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