Conflicted Minerals


There are nearly six billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, with global adoption at 87% in 2011. Mobile-broadband subscriptions are growing at 45% annually reaching almost 1.2 billion by 2011, with 159 countries equipped with 2G and/or 3G data services (International Telecommunications Union, 2011). These advances in information communication technologies have engendered an increase in conflict over the extraction and exploitation of the world's natural resources, as well as labor conditions globally.

step0-iphone4s-gallery-image1_GEO_US.pngApple Inc. makes up 15% of the U.S. market for smartphones, while Samsung holds on to 25% of the market (Reed, 2012). Apple, like other technological device vendors, claims to adhere to the "highest standards of social responsibility across our worldwide supply chain. We insist that all of our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes" (Apple Inc., 2012). Yet, these policies have not been without contenion by NGOs and labor organizations.

Earlier in the week we heard from Bas van Abel of the De Waag Society about the FairPhone project to develop the world's first fair trade mobile phone, as well as from Baruch Gottlieb -- who later joined us as a project member -- on ethical tracing of the production chains of our everyday devices, making the claim that there is little information at various stages of the production chain in the mineral trade from raw materials to their use and end stage disposal.

We sought to explore the level of scrutiny at each stage of the mineral trade and device production to find out what information is available at each point in the extraction and production process.


Figure 1: Where do They Stand Within the Supply Chain? (from FairPhone, Waag Society).


To further complicate the claim that little information is available in particular areas of the mineral production chain leading to our everyday consumer devices, we ask:

RQ1: What is the visibility of conflict in each node of the mobile phone supply chain involving production, refinement, and processing of concrete minerals?

RQ2: Specifically, what information is available? What bullets on the production diagram are dark/light, corresponding to the availability of information? How untraceable are these minerals on the supply chain?

RQ3: To what extent can we use the Web to study the level of conflict at point in the supply-production chain of our everyday devices?


Building on the presentations by Baruch and the FairPhone team, our group identified the key steps in the phone fabrication process, as well as a list of those six minerals that are used most actively in the process:
  • Tantalum
  • Niobium
  • Gallium
  • Cobalt
  • Coltan
  • Tungsten
Using these terms, we developed a corpus of search results for each metal at each stage of the process, in both English and the local languages of the countries in which these processes usually take place (example: the queries for the “smelter” step of the fabrication process were done in English [smelter], Portuguese [fundição], and French [fonderie]). Once the initial corpus of results was identified, we used the Google Scraper tool to query each individual result for the word “conflict”.

We aggregated our findings along two dimensions:
  • The size of the corpus at each node (by mineral and language), and
  • The percent of the results in the corpus that contain the term “conflict”.
This allows us to see the relative attention paid to each mineral in each step of the process, and the extent to which discussion of that mineral at that point in the process is associated with conflict in the online corpus.


Chain Supply Nodes – expectation analysis

The Fairphone chain supply analysis by expert Baruch Gottlieb according to light and dark levels:

Lightness refers to the visibility of the issue in concerning conflict minerals, whereby darkness refers to the obscurity of the issues concerning conflict minerals.

Mining companies: Light

The mining companies have to protect their identity; therefore it is more likely that they will name the conflict minerals in order to protect their company.

Mining cooperatives: Light

The mining cooperatives have the same issues as the mining companies. They have to make reports to government organizations and refer to conflict minerals in order to maintain a positive identity/reputation, since they are dealing with official agencies.

Creusers: Light

The creusers are can be considered light, since it appears to the situation in conflict mineral producing areas.

Smelters: Half light

The issue with the smelters’ node is that there are various kinds of smelters, geographically. This is where the creuseurs are working. Smelters that are further along the line will not be referred to in official reports. Additionally, the business itself is expected to be dark as well.

Producer half fabricates: Dark

Generally these products are not related to a particular end product, used in all kinds of businesses. Therefore, there is no reason to name them in relation of conflict minerals.

Refining: Dark

The refining nodes resemble the same expectation as the ‘producer half fabricates’. The products are not directly related to a particular end product, therefore it remains n the dark.

Assemblers: Half light

A very visible assembler has been in the news for some time : Foxconn. Public interest groups and consumer groups are interested in the origins of their product, which sheds more light on this node.

Brand companies: Light

Companies such as Nokia and Apple have to address these issues in order to maintain a good reputation.

Telecom service providers: Light

Telecom service providers have to promise they do not supply phones that use conflict minerals. Their job is to distract the customer away from the negative issues at hand.

B2B consumers: Half light

B2B consumers are only addressed via international relations.

B2C consumers (retailer): Half light

The retailer would probably not deal with these issues directly, since they are more focused on advertising products. Perhaps they would refer to the CSR of various telecommunications companies

Second hand consumers: Light (Depending context)

It is more Western agencies that collect second hand phones that are interested in addressing the issue - depending on their ethical stand.

Recovery organization: Light

The recovery organizations that show up on the Internet will most probably be light, since they want to advertise their environmental commitment. It implies an moral commitment to the ethical lifecycle of a (mobile) phone.

Recycling organization: light

Recycling organizations will most probably address conflict mineral issues in the same manner as recovery organizations, since they want to maintain their (positive) identity concerning these issues.

Levels most discussed

The conflict minerals are each discussed on various levels:

(most discussed is Coltan - Gallium/Nobium are less addressed)
  • Coltan
  • Tantalum
  • Tungsten/Cobalt
  • Gallium/Nobium


Figure 2: Conflict minerals - level most discussed


Figure 3: Visualization conflict minerals - chain supply: Fairphone


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Beekman et al. (2008). "Communicating Ethical Traceability." Ethical Traceability and Communicating Food, The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics (15). (Abstract)

Chopra, A. and Kundu, A. (2008). "The Fair Tracing Project: Digital Tracing Technology and Indian Coffee.” Cotemporary South Asia (16:2), 217-30. (Abstract)

Chopra, A. and Kundu, A. (2009). “The Fair Tracing Project: Mapping a Traceable Value Chain for Indian Coffee.” Contemporary South Asia (17:2), 213-23. (Abstract)

Critchley, S. (2007). “Anarchic Metapolitics - political subjectivity and political action after Marx.” from Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, 88-105. (Abstract)

Gottlieb, B. (2011). “The Materiality of Digital Utopias” from ISEA2011 proceedings, online.

Marres, N. (forthcoming). “The Environmental Teapot and Other Household Objects: Reconnecting the Politics of Technology, Issues and Things.” To appear in: Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion. P. Harvey et al (Eds.). London and New York: Routledge. (Do not quote)
Topic revision: r10 - 06 Jul 2012, JillHopke
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