Author(s): Peter Bryer
Yesterday, The Register covered the possibility of new European legislation requiring electronics makers to ascertain the sources of all raw materials used in production. The commendable goal is to avoid the use of "conflict minerals" in the manufacture of products like handsets and tablets.
In 2011, CCS Insight predicted that the ethical sourcing of raw materials such as tin, tantalum and tungsten would become a complex dilemma for mobile device brands. Consumers are calling for legislation to hold top mobile phone brands accountable for their ingredients.
The formal elimination of ignorance as an excuse for manufacturers using so-called blood metals could have wide ramifications given the incredible volumes in the mobile market. Two billion devices are sold globally each year, and millions in Western Europe. Major handset makers use hundreds of thousands of components per minute in their production. The logistics of such supply chains are extremely complicated, with parts flowing between continents and most finished goods coming from Asian factories.
Outsourcing doesn't absolve brands of responsibility. Controversy peaked in 2012 following the release of the documentary Blood in the Mobile, though the issue appears to have had little lasting effect on the booming global handset market. However, CCS Insight believes that most major handset brands took the problem seriously, scrutinising their component suppliers and voluntarily creating their own set of requirements. Some countries introduced formal legislation, but it's hard to regulate such laws owing to an inability to trace parts.
As The Register points out, even Fairphone — a specialist in making Fairtrade-inspired smartphones — says that it's practically impossible to completely ascertain all original sources of minerals used in devices.
Smartphone makers must begin to allow for greater levels of legislation and scrutiny. This could affect pricing and volumes, and drive recycling, second-hand sales and longer upgrade cycles.
Several years ago, the goodwill of several major handset brands and the industry itself was tarnished by the documentary and media coverage. The headlines have faded, but conflicts continue. Brands have the opportunity to work with governments to improve the tracing of raw materials and to educate the market about progress. It's a chance to make good.