Encompassing the columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, gold, wolframite, and derivatives determined by the U.S. Secretary of State to be financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (or an adjoining country), conflict minerals remain a challenging aspect of electronic component production.
“While finished electronics represent the power of technology, the materials used to create them have natural origins; most of the materials are extracted or mined directly from the earth itself,” Kristin Manganello writes in To Combat Conflict Materials in Electronics & E-Waste, Start at the Source. “As such, the finished product, in essence, obscures its very own origin.”
The problem is that the origins of these materials are often associated with sinister overtones, ranging from environmental issues to social conflicts – the vast majority of which are invisible to us by the time the electronics reach our hands, Manganello continues.
This reality directly impacts electronics buyers and the companies they represent. Here are nine important things that all procurement professionals should know about conflict minerals:
- They include some common ingredients of electronics components. Conflict minerals, as defined by U.S. legislation, currently include the metals tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold, which are the derivatives of the minerals cassiterite, columbite-tantalite, and wolframite, respectively.
- They’re not all from the DRC. Today, a small share of all tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold metals originate from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and are sometimes controlled by armed groups to finance the ongoing conflict in the DRC and adjoining countries, both indirectly and directly. “Some of these minerals end up in the supply chain of products including those in the electronics industry,” Ericsson points out in What do you know about conflict minerals?
- They’re even from Canada, Russia, and Argentina. Conflict minerals can be extracted at many different locations around the world, according to the Responsible Minerals Initiative. The SEC rules define conflict minerals as 3TG metals, wherever extracted. For example, tin extracted in Canada, Russia, or Argentina is considered a conflict mineral by definition.
- The rules can be a bit fuzzy. In the SEC rule, “DRC conflict-free” is defined as minerals that were extracted and did not directly or indirectly benefit armed groups in the covered countries, the RMI notes. (Therefore, tin extracted from Canada is considered “DRC conflict-free” under the definitions of the SEC rule.)
- There are four metals that are always considered conflict minerals. The four metals, tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are always defined as conflict minerals, regardless of where they came from (or if the mining has financed any armed groups or not).
- Conflict minerals are often used in telecom parts and components. All four conflict minerals are commonly used in the manufacturing process of telecom parts and components. “Albeit, all four metals are used in small amounts and in low concentrations,” Ericsson notes.
- The Dodd-Frank Act requires all publicly traded companies to ensure a responsible raw material supply chain. “This includes the sourcing of conflict minerals, ensuring that such metals are not tied to the conflict in DRC,” Ericsson explains.
- Many conflict minerals have a true purpose in the electronics supply chain. Electronics are constructed using a smorgasbord of materials, each with their own unique purpose, Manganello explains. Tungsten/Wolframite provides mobile devices with their vibration function; gold is used for its electrical conductivity and chemical stability; and cobalt improves the oxidation rates in the nickel portion of lithium-ion batteries.
- There are steps buyers can take to minimize conflict minerals in their supply chains. To create the most conflict mineral-free supply chain possible, Manganello says buyers should follow supplier management best practices that include mapping out material supply chain routes to visually identify problematic sourcing regions; working closely with tier one suppliers to enforce ethical sourcing requirements; and “establishing a set of standards and requirements for material sourcing, including measures such as only accepting materials with certification that guarantees ethical sourcing.”