At the beginning of the year, researchers from Amnesty International traced the sale of cobalt – a metal used to make lithium-ion batteries – from questionable and illegitimate mines. They discovered a litany of human rights violations including offenses such as child labour, ridiculously long hours, and pay that was so little it boarded on slavery.
At the heart of their research, however, was a question that’s probably going to plague international businesses for many years to come. That is, what exactly is going on behind the scenes of making smartphones? Or any product for that matter.
To begin with, answering that question is difficult. Tracing a company’s supply line gets complicated when materials are traded and exported from multiple regions of the world. When Amnesty International contacted 16 multinationals who were listed as customers of the battery manufacturers, five denied the connection, four were unsure, six said they would investigate the claims, and only one company admitted to the connection. It’s clear that company’s don’t want anything to do with conflict resources, but it’s unclear how many are actually buying them.
Emmanuel Umpula, Afrewatch Executive Director, said it best when describing the paradoxical nature of it all.
“It is a major paradox of the digital era that some of the world’s richest, most innovative companies are able to market incredibly sophisticated devices without being required to show where they source raw materials for their components.”
Yet, there are companies out there who are trying to do things differently. One of them being FairPhone, a social enterprise company that aims to put an end to conflict resources. Interestingly, they’re not just marketing a product, but they’re also marketing an idea. An alternative to the dodgy ambiguity of big named companies and a solution to the human rights violations that go unnoticed by the public.
Their commitment to transparency is shown symbolically on the phone, with a clear back that reveals all of the bits and pieces that go into making it. Its modular design allows users to swap batteries, cameras, screens, and whatever else for a completely customizable experience.
While it’s reasonable to say that Fairphone may not fair in the competition, their mandate and overall social relevance makes them an incredibly important force in today’s economy.
Amnesty International reported that children worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads to “earn between one to two dollars a day.” The number of children working in these mines is equally disturbing; as many as 40,000 were working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The impact seems remote, but in reality we’re complicit in it. We carry in our pockets the toil of hundreds of miners and workers and yet our swipes and google searches seem to absolve us of all of that. But that’s just business, maybe it’ll change and maybe it’ll stay the same.