Tech Innovation

Conflict-Free Minerals: See What Intel is Doing in the Congo

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor and Contributor

By taking a stand and encouraging other companies to follow suit, Intel has committed to using minerals from “conflict-free” sources in the Congo.

Much has been made of “blood diamonds” that are mined and sold to fund conflict in war zones. But an issue more pervasive, and yet less publicized, is the widespread use of “conflict minerals,” which are likely present in the device you’re using to read this article.

The mining of minerals used to make consumer electronics — such as tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold — can be used to fund militant violence and human-rights atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

It doesn’t need to be this way.

It is now becoming possible for computer devices to be made entirely with minerals that come from ethical and responsible sources.

For the past five years, Intel has strived to create a smarter supply chain system, working with partners and across different industries to develop a standard that would allow device makers to better trace minerals.

Intel announced the availability of its first microprocessors made with conflict-free minerals in January 2014. The company continues to make steady progress toward its goal that all the products manufactured in 2016 and beyond will be conflict free.

According to The Impact of Dodd-Frank and Conflict Minerals Reforms on Eastern Congo’s Conflict, the result of these efforts has helped realize a 55 percent reduction in armed-group profits from the tin, tungsten and tantalum mined in the region. As Fast Company’s recent article Intel’s CEO Reveals the Company’s Plans to Build a Conflict-Free Supply Chain By 2016 reports, 90 percent of the world’s tantalum supply is now conflict-free.

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For years, natural resources mined in the DRC have generated profits that supported rebel groups and corrupt governments. To extract and sell the minerals used to make computer microprocessors, these groups used extortion and violence against their own people.

In 2008, the non-profit group Enough Project alerted Intel to what exactly was happening in the DRC. That sparked an immediate reaction.

“We have an obligation to implement changes in our supply chain to ensure that our business and our products were not inadvertently funding human atrocities,” said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who at the time led Intel’s supply chain and manufacturing efforts.

To stop sourcing minerals from the DRC altogether might have been the easiest solution, but Krzanich knew that would be economically devastating to the region and its people.

After partnering with the Enough Project, Intel worked with the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the tantalum industry to initially trace the origins of minerals used to make microprocessors.

These results led to a quick determination that Intel needed to establish a smarter supply chain verification process. The data collected led to collaborations with the EICC and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and ultimately to the creation of the Conflict Free Smelter Program (CFSP).

One major issue arose when smelters came back to Intel willing to open their books for the company, but unable to afford costs of the audit.

“Krzanich authorized money to provide a pool of funds that smelters could use to get audited — so that issue vanished,” explains Intel’s Conflict Minerals Program Manager and Supply Chain Director, Carolyn Duran.

Part of this initiative is the “bag and tag” protocol in which every piece of mined ore validated as conflict-free within the region is traceable back to its source.

“Once you believe and witness the things that you are doing in the supply chain can actually make an impact on the ground, it’s almost impossible not to be passionate about it,” says Duran.

By developing a system for Intel, Duran said her company is establishing conflict-free supply lines as part of the Conflict Free Sourcing Initiative that other companies in turn can use to make their own products.

Over a five-year period, Intel visited 85 smelters and refiners in 21 different countries. Smelters that are compliant to a 3rd party audit program are listed publicly and thus available to all.

“Those efforts … can be used by companies of any size,” said Duran. “We all, large and small companies, need to work together to drive change.”

Intel likens this approach to open source software because it is completely transparent and available for other industries to operate in an equally ethical way without having to start their conflict-free efforts from scratch.

For example, the Conflict Minerals Reporting Template is a collaborative effort with the CFSI that allows both sides of the supply chain to direct and audit their efforts so they can have one consolidated system.

“The minerals are important, but not as important as the lives of the people who work to get them,” Krzanich explained at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

He asked other companies to put people above profits and help the electronics industry play a serious role in securing conflict-free minerals for the products they make.

To date, Intel has been joined by 150 companies in and outside of the electronics industry that are currently involved in efforts to stop funding violence in the Congo. The CFSI program continually maintains a list of conflict-free smelters.

“Developing the template and audit protocols took two years because there were a lot of stakeholders,” said Duran.

Still, that was considered incredibly quick according to policy experts who spoke with Duran.

There is no question more work needs to be done and that this journey towards offering conflict-free purchase choices has just begun. But foundational efforts by Intel have led to a set of basic standards for sourcing conflict-free minerals and, as a result, momentum is building as industries of all kinds get behind this common goal.

“Ideally and eventually, all of Intel’s products are conflict-free,” said Duran.

 

Jonah Bayer and Laura Smith contributed to this article.

* “Conflict free” and “conflict-free” means “DRC conflict free”, which is defined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules to mean products that do not contain conflict minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and/or gold) that directly or indirectly finance or benefit armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries. We also use the term “conflict-free” in a broader sense to refer to suppliers, supply chains, smelters and refiners whose sources of conflict minerals do not finance conflict in the DRC or adjoining countries.

 

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