Tech Innovation

What are Conflict Minerals and Why Does Conflict-Free Matter?

Did you know that tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold are present in hundreds of items we use every day, and that procurement of these elements sometimes funds the efforts of warlords and rebels in distant parts of the globe?

It’s true.

Cars rely on tantalum, tin and gold for functionality, while trains depend on tantalum for automated functions. Treadmills and other exercise equipment employ tungsten.

80 percent of US-made food and drink cans contain tinplate. Elsewhere in the home, blow dryers and electric toothbrushes utilize filaments made of tungsten.

Cell phones use tungsten to create the vibrate alert, and tablets contain tantalum to hold battery charge. Regardless of the device though, the exchange of text and email messages relies on tin and tantalum.

The hinges, wires and lens components of eyeglasses contain tin and gold. Telecommunications wiring contains tin, tantalum and gold, and SIM cards contain gold.

These minerals are in everything from laptops, phones and tablets to light bulbs, eyeglasses and blow dryers. So where they come from?

In many cases, the minerals — from which tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold are extracted — are mined in parts of the world plagued by war and civil unrest.

The mineral-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where many of these conflict minerals* are mined, has been particularly volatile since war broke out in the mid-1990s in the aftermath of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. From that time on, the extraction of Congolese minerals has been linked with corruption, violence and killing, as warlords, rebels and militia groups have taken over mines and forced others into slave labor. This illegal trade has enabled these groups to buy weapons, commit unspeakable acts and terrorize the region.

In 2009 Carolyn Duran, supply chain director for Intel, began working to address this issue. One option was to stop doing business in the Congo altogether. But that would also hurt the legitimate business owners and workers trying to make an honest living.

Plus, says Duran, “You can’t solve a problem by abandoning it. You have to start over by reconnecting the dots and convincing partners to do the right thing.”

So Duran and her team went directly to the source, visiting more than 85 smelters in 21 countries to present their case.

Many partners were on board from the start.

“In the tantalum market, for example, where the electronics industry has the largest purchasing power,” says Duran, “several joined with us right from the beginning, saying ‘It’s the right thing to do.'”

She adds, “Of course, a few said, ‘That’s not my problem. I don’t need to do this.’ But when customers came to them and said, ‘I need to see some validation of conflict-free sourcing before I’ll buy from you,’ they actually changed their systems. We saw smelters changing their behavior. That’s when I knew that the supply chain pressure was paying off.”

Duran’s efforts have not only ensured that Intel microprocessor sources are now conflict free, but have paved the way for the global Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI). To date, nearly 200 companies and associations from seven different industries have joined CFSI to ensure conflict-free sourcing in their supply chains and promote peace and stability in the Congo.


* “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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