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Fair Trade in an Unfair World

Jun 29 2014
Conflicted over bananas, button-downs, and now, smart phones.

A few years ago, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted a rule requiring companies publicly to disclose their use of conflict minerals sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and its neighbors. The first deadline for filing was the end of May this year.

In this combative region, armed groups and militants are affiliated with a number of mining operations, so purchasing such minerals can – often unwittingly – put companies and consumers in the position of funding the warfare, hence the name "conflict minerals." Time magazine recently asked the grisly and provocative question, "Is There Blood on Your Laptop?" (The title recalls "blood diamond," a term for gems mined in war zones as portrayed and popularized in the 2006 movie of the same name.)

Experts on the region remind us that unrest in the DRC is far more complex than ending the sale of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold – the minerals mined in the country that are used in microchips, semiconductors, and circuit boards.

Without doubt, the mining conditions in the region are inhumane, rebel fighting – funded at least in part by the sale of these natural resources – has displaced more than a hundred thousand people, and the suffering of those caught in militia's paths has been devastating.

As is true all over the world, however, untangling the root causes of the violence and suffering is more complicated than creating a new piece of legislation half a world away.

Apple, like many of its peers, has said that it is committed to ensuring that its products are free of conflict minerals, but that it cannot, at present, conclusively determine the country of origin of all of the minerals found in its products. (Not to mention the allegations of poor working conditions at the Chinese factories where our gadgets are made.) So what are we to do? Boycott smart phones until we are sure that they contain no conflict minerals?

Asking questions about the origins of what we buy has become commonplace over the past few decades. The ongoing issue of "fair trade" emerged again recently after a third shopper in the U.K. reported finding hand-sewn labels in her new clothing complaining of "degrading sweatshop conditions" and "exhausting hours." Primark, the discount fashion retailer from which the items were purchased, was quick to insist that the company follows a "strict code of ethics" in its garment production.

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