Last week, it was widely reported that both Intel Corporations and Apple Computers had pulled the plug on sourcing of precious minerals typically used in the manufacturing of its high-tech products from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). These basic building blocks of our cell phones, computers and other consumer electronics are widely known as “conflict minerals”, mainly because of the large spread connection the “artisanal” and industrial mines that produce the materials and the flow of money to supply arms to rebels fighting in the DRC. Conflict minerals are to the 21st Century high-tech world what “blood” diamonds were to the 19th and 20th centuries.
Apple, Intel and other U.S. based corporations have signed onto the Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program, which applies to shipments of tin ore, tungsten, gold and coltan from Congo and its neighbors. The CFS program demands mineral processors prove purchases don’t contribute to conflict in eastern Congo. The regulations were developed by the Washington-based Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and Global E-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) in Brussels (Belgium), representing electronics companies including Intel and Apple, Dell etc. The program is being marshaled by the GeSI Extractives Work Group, and summarized on the EICC website.
The CFS initiative was established in response to the conflict minerals provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010), signed into law last July (page 838 of the 848 page Act to be exact). Section 1502 requires companies to make an annual disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding whether potential conflict minerals used in their products or in their manufacturing processes originated in the DRC or an adjoining country. If the minerals were sourced from these countries, companies must report on the due diligence measures used to track the sources of the minerals if they were derived from the DRC or neighboring nations. In addition, the Act will require a 3rd party audit to verify the accuracy of the company’s disclosure. Finally, a declaration of “DRC conflict-free” must be provided to support that goods containing minerals were not obtained in a manner that could “directly or indirectly … finance armed groups in the DRC or an adjoining country”.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was to have issued regulations to stem purchases of conflict minerals this week. However, on Monday the SEC delayed issuance of the specific rules to the August-December timeframe. Ultimately, U.S. companies will be required to audit mineral supplies next year to identify purchases that may be tainted by the Congo fighting, according to draft SEC regulations.
Two groups of companies will be directly impacted by the Conflict Minerals Law: companies that are directly regulated by the SEC, and companies that are not SEC-regulated, but are suppliers to impacted companies. Starting April 1, the CFS scheme began requiring due diligence and full traceability on all material from the Congo and other neighboring conflict zones. Then, these audits, or at least their summaries, are to be incorporated into SEC regulatory findings (in some manner, as yet to be defined by the SEC).
California Steps Up
Meanwhile, this past Tuesday, committee of the California State Senate passed a Senate Bill 861 Tuesday that will curb the use of conflict minerals from Congo. The 9-1 vote in the Governmental Organization Committee was a first step to making California the first “conflict-free state”. If it passes the full assembly, the bill would prohibit the state government from contracting with companies that fail to comply with federal regulations on conflict minerals.
According to D.C. attorney Sarah Altshuller (@saltshuller) “The California legislation, even if passed, is unlikely to impact many companies: it would apply only to companies against which the SEC has filed a civil or administrative enforcement action. That said, California’s legislative activity reflects significant stakeholder concern, as well as advocacy activity, regarding the ways in which the sourcing of specific minerals may be contributing to the ongoing conflict in the DRC.” Many engaged in the initial debate were concerned too that the state was too early to move forward in the absence of final SEC rules.
Supply Chain Ripples?
Leon Kaye (@leonkaye), reporting last week in Triple Pundit, “The CFS identifies smelters through independent third-party auditors who can assess that raw materials did not originate from sources that profit off the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now Intel and Apple have stopped purchasing minerals from this region, which has transformed a voluntary program to what the president of an exporter association in Congo called “an embargo.”
Also, as reported also last week by Bloomberg, “There is a de-facto embargo, it’s very clear,” said John Kanyoni, president of the mineral exporters association of North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We’re committed to continue with all these programs. But at the same time we’re traveling soon to Asia to find alternatives.”
Defacto or preemptive, this move is long overdue and is bound to bring to light an elephant in the room that manufacturers and consumers alike have been quick to run from and avoid. I’ve reported in recent posts my dismay over the approach that Apple has taken in addressing its supply chain sustainability issues, especially in Asia. The fact that Apple has electively chosen, along with Intel to be a first mover to shake the supply chain up and seek to right some corporate social responsibility wrongs is encouraging. However as my colleague Mr. Kaye correctly notes, neither may have had a choice.
As noted in an article by Future 500’s Juliette Terzieff this week, “buyers for Chinese, Indian and other countries’ manufacturers who are not part of the CFS program or subject to U.S. legislative requirements coming in effect in early 2012 face no regulatory requirements to ensuring their purchases are conflict-free. This could prove particularly valuable for those seeking to sidestep controls given that Chinese demand for minerals like copper are predicted to rise 7% every year between 2010 and 2014.”
How Many Companies are affected?
In an excellent analysis by ELM Consulting and reported in a series on AgMetal Miner last fall, the amount of companies falling into the two previously mentioned categories is unclear. According to the analysis:
For the first category, the SEC estimated that 1,199 companies will require a full Conflict Minerals Report. The methodology for determining this number is worthy of mention. The SEC began by finding the amount of tantalum produced by the DRC in comparison to global production (15% – 20%). The Commission selected the higher figure of 20% and multiplied that by the total number of affected issuers, which they stated is 6,000. (75 Fed. Reg. 80966.) Clearly, this methodology does not consider many additional factors and the actual number of companies that will require the full audit is certain to be higher. For the second category – the suppliers – no estimate has been made. But if one anticipates 10 suppliers (we have data indicating that the number of suppliers ranges from one to well over 100 for a single directly-regulated company; an average of 10 suppliers may be conservative, especially given the wide range of conflict mineral-containing products) for each company directly regulated, the number of additional companies impacted would be 12,000.
Verifying Mineral Sources Is Tough Work
As I noted in a past post on “materiality”, surveys taken from manufacturers suggest a lack of confidence in being able to confidently trace conflict minerals to the source (excluding the likelihood that illegal extracted minerals are also blending into the marketplace). So you could see the difficulty in companies demonstrating due diligence in tracing the chain of materials flows from point of origin.
According to Treehugger ace writer Jami Heimbuch , plugging the supply chain to assure the at all minerals come from conflict free zones is no easy task. Ms. Heimbuch reported that even Apple has noted how it is nearly impossible to know the exact source.
The proposed SEC rules do attempt to take on suppliers who have “influence” over contract manufacturers who provide name brand products for larger companies. The proposed rules also apply to retailers of private-brand products and generic brands. Finally there is some ambiguity around how scrap electronic waste is to be treated. The SEC has not defined what is recycled or scrap material and manufacturers have a fair degree of latitude in their disclosure reports as to how they will treat scrap/recycled material.
The BBC reports that Rick Goss, of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC), whose members include Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Nokia, states that “it will be impossible to make sure that not one single illicit shipment entered the supply chain….It is too complicated in terms of corruption – illegal taxation – to absolutely guarantee that an illegal shipment did not enter the supply chain, regardless of all private and public sector efforts,’ he warns. The minerals could go elsewhere. Asian smelters are sourcing from any number of countries.”
If it is impossible to track the source of all the minerals going into the stream, then the big question is what countries and companies will do to fix inadequate governance and systems. And if U.S. companies shift their sourcing to other nations, will this be enough? Is global manufacturing merely playing “kick the can”?
The conflict minerals issue just may be the “perfect storm” that combines elements of resource consumption, consumerism, corporate social responsibility, supply chain management, politics and product stewardship.
The next post in the series will dive a bit deeper into efforts by key manufacturers in how they are auditing, validating and tracing the conflict minerals supply chain and what responsibilities we as consumers have in lessening the impacts of this perfect storm.
 As part of the Conflict-Free Smelter program, participating tech companies must provide third-party verification that their processors don’t contain commonly used minerals that fund armed conflicts in Central Africa, specifically the Democratic Republic of Congo. Minerals from Central Africa commonly sourced for tech components include gold, titanium, tungsten and tin; the DRC provides 5 percent of the world’s tin supply, as well as 14 percent of tantalum.