Apple Inc. is celebrating the release of the latest generation of the company’s popular iPhone, and so are militant groups in the Congo.
In every iPhone & and just about every other cell phone for that matter—comes four minerals essential to manufacturing process of many consumer electronics devices: tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold.
The Enough Project, a campaign of the Center for American Progress, staged a protest at the grand opening of Apple’s long-awaited Georgetown retail store. Hundreds of Washington, D.C. residents lined Wisconsin Avenue waiting to catch a glimpse of the new store and pick up a free t-shirt, and roughly 20 volunteers from Enough and Run for Congo Women called on the consumer electronics giant to commit to providing conflict-free minerals in their products.
The Enough project was pleased with the crowd's reaction, according to Sarah Collman, one of the event organizers and an ENOUGH intern.
“I’ve been down the whole line,” she says. “People ask questions and they’re interested and they want to know.”
ENOUGH interns handed out fact sheets detailing how these four minerals indirectly fund groups like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a politically aligned militia that is comprised of many of the same people that carried out mass genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Estimates place the annual revenue generated for groups like the FDLR through these minerals at $180 million.
The minerals are smuggled to the coast and shipped to plants in China, India or a number of other countries. There, they are combined with other metals, making them harder, though not impossible, to trace.
Tracing of these minerals is the first step, says Sasha Lezhnev of the Enough Project. The group is calling for three concrete steps that electronics companies should take. Besides tracing their minerals from extraction to use, companies should also audit the mining and trade practices and ultimately certify that the minerals they use are conflict free. Implementing those steps would cost less than a penny per device sold, says Enough.
Apple is by no means alone in failing to ensure that their minerals don’t indirectly fund genocide in countries like Congo. Every cell phone maker uses the same materials, but vary in commitment to conflict free minerals.
Motorola, maker of the popular Razr cell phone, and Intel, the world’s largest computer chip manufacturer, have taken steps to audit the mining of Tantalum. Nokia, the world’s largest cell phone maker, added language to their Substance List that categorizes Tantalum as a monitored substance.
“All tantalum must come from legal sources and mining must not contribute to conflict. Suppliers need to investigate/map their tantalum supply chain and collect proof/certificates of (country of) origin. The proof/certificates must be provided to Nokia upon request,” states the Nokia guidelines.
Nokia also states that the mining and trade of Tantalum must adhere to international definitions of socially responsible practices, citing specifically the UN Global Compact.
But Apple is “one of the worst,” says Enough Communications Director Jonathan Hutson. And that’s particularly hard when Apple remains an industry leader on many other issues that progressives hold dear. In 2008, California-based Apple made a very public contribution to the fight against Proposition 8. And recently, Apple has leapt to the forefront of environmental stewardship in the industry.
Apple’s reputation as a socially responsible company is matched only by the loyalty their customers display. “The company’s awesome,” says Denise Collymore, who was the first person in line for the new store. She was approached by ENOUGH volunteers, who explained to her why they were protesting.
“[Apple] could get the same components, but in a different way,” she offered, but added that her opinion about the company hadn’t changed at all.
“I’m glad I was educated, because I wasn’t aware of it” she says.
Others were less receptive toward the protesters.
“We’re really excited to have a national corporation that’s so successful like Apple,” says one woman on line with her son. “My feeling is they’re just trying to piggyback on free publicity right now. This is not the time or place to do this.”
Riles Murphy, an intern with the Human Rights Campaign who ducked out of work early to attend the protest, disagrees.
“I think there’s no excuse,” she says. “When you live in a time and an age where you have these huge corporations that can spend billions on advertising, then you can spend a million dollars, two million dollars, how ever much it takes.”
Research in Motion, makers of the #1 smartphone brand BlackBerry, responded to requests for a comment.
"RIM has been an early supporter of legislative efforts to end conflict minerals trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," said a spokeswoman via email.
"RIM commends the Members of Congress and NGOs who have been working on this issue and looks forward to lending continued support to this important effort."