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April 15, 2009

We have no taste for unethical sources of crucial minerals

GLOBAL – I recently wrote two articles on Nokia’s environmental activities and e-waste. In one, I proudly mention the company’s strong ethics, which in turn influence our suppliers, such as sourcing Tantalum from the conflict areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I’m not the only one thinking of Tantalum. Fortune wrote a very good article on the subject of “conflict minerals,” and a European wide group of NGOs have united under a campaign called “Make IT Fair,”  calling for electronics corporations to do more to ensure materials are not sourced unethically from regions such as the DRC.

This is a very serious matter. Please read on to learn more about this and what we’ve been doing.

The mineral
Tantalum is a material used in consumer electronics. The mobile phone industry uses about four per cent of the world’s total supply of Tantalum. The DRC is one of the places where Tantalum (or rather Coltan, one of the ores that it comes from) is naturally found and mined. The DRC only accounts for around one per cent of the world’s supply of this material, but it is found in the east of the country where the conflict areas are and this is the problem. This has led to concerns that the Tantalum is being mined under conditions that breach human rights and is being sold to fund warlords and illegal activity.

Tracing sources
We have been looking into these issues for some years, trying to ensure that our supply chain of materials is sourced in legal or ethical ways. It’s a big challenge to trace materials to their original sources. This involves thousands of companies and changes in the mining industry. Also, because of the complexity in the way that metals are produced and sold, sometimes ores from many different sources are combined to make the final materials with no or limited traceability. To make further progress requires industry-level action both amongst electronics companies and the mining industry, and Nokia has been actively participating in this discussion.

In 2001 Nokia became aware of the potential link between the mining of Tantalum and financing of the conflict in the DRC and began requiring our suppliers to confirm they do not source this material from this country. This is checked on an ongoing basis. It helps that the DRC provides such a tiny amount of the world’s source of this material and there are many other countries around the world where it can be mined including Australia and Brazil.

More recently the company has been working with suppliers of other minerals, such as Cobalt and Tin, to improve transparency of the supply chain and understand how standards can be promoted. For example, the DRC supplies 40% of the world supply of Cobalt, a material used in batteries. This substance is found in the south of the country, away from the conflict zones and is mined legally by many large, well established companies.

Going further
Nokia is concerned about poor practices at some mine operations around the world, not just in the DRC. Nokia is in a position to positively influence our supply chain, promoting high environmental and social standards. We have been at the forefront of driving action and awareness of ethical standards with our own suppliers and within the wider electronics industry.

For example, we have rigorous health and safety, environmental and labor standards that all of our suppliers must meet, and we require them to apply the same to their own suppliers. Before agreeing to work with a supplier we ensure that these standards are met, and we visit a number of suppliers on an ongoing basis to review standards. We also work with suppliers on training and support to help them implement and improve standards.

If we find that standards are not being met we do not walk away but work with that supplier to address the issues and in so doing help to raise overall standards.

Global action
We welcome further public debate and action in this area if it helps to drive further improvements.

Significant action is being taken through the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, of which Nokia is a member, and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition. Last year these groups conducted extensive research into the key challenges surrounding the supply of metals, the ability to trace and track the sources of metal used in electronic products and the industry’s ability to influence conditions.

The results were shared with various organizations and NGOs who were consulted on the next steps for the industry. Further action will now be taken to try and trace the supply of three metals, Cobalt, Tin and Tantalum, back to their original source. This will include the mining industry and other experts. The results will help inform further discussions on the obstacles of tracing metals and how this can be improved.

Actions speaking louder than words
In the end, it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that we are not doing enough in this space. We think our actions and activities show clearly what we believe in. That we haven’t stood on a soapbox or flung open our books does not mean that we are any less committed to continued efforts in solving issues around mineral sourcing and local health, safety, environmental, and labor standards.

It goes without saying that we will continue our efforts with the same high level of determination and hope to continue driving the electronics industry in the right direction.

What do you think?

[Celia Peterson and Susan Smith, from Nokia’s environment communications team, contributed (heavily) to this article.]

Photo by GlobalVoyager