It’s no secret that the constant flow of upgrades in the electronic industry is rooted in clever marketing more so than the a real need for a newer device. Most of us don’t only upgrade when our devices break, we upgrade when our phone company tells that even though we have a perfectly working phone (albeit a few scratchces) we now qualify for an inexpensive upgrade, we upgrade when we realize how much more convenient life will become when we get our hands on the newest computer, and we upgrade when we get some extra Christmas cash from grandma and can finally upgrade from a boring textbook to a shiny tablet. While an obvious downside to the upgrade addiction can be seen in our bank account statements, what may be less obvious is that this cultural addiction also creates a continual demand for minerals like copper, tin, coltan, cobalt, and tungsten, minerals linked to human trafficking and terrorism.
The mining of these materials is often extremely dangerous, conditions characterized by toxic chemicals, heavy loads, and dangerous tools (free2work.org.) Many of our everyday electronics are made with Coltan, a mineral found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where miners (including women and children) are forced to work by armed terrorist groups. Not only are these people forced into the dangerous mines but rape and reckless violence is regularly used to maintain control. It is believed that the profits of the mining and smuggling of the coltan funds the violent and oppressive military occupation of the country (theverge.com.) Though U.S. companies are held to trade laws that forbid importing goods obtained through terrorism, the minerals are often purchased after being smuggled into China where companies and governments alike can successfully turn a blind eye to the origins of the minerals.
As is the case in any industry with such a complex supply chain, human trafficking crimes often occur at more than one stage in the game. Infringements on workers rights, forced overtime, exploitative wages, unsafe working conditions, verbal abuse, and explicit human trafficking have all been found in the factories where our phones, computers, and televisions are made. It is our constant demand for new devices that often fuels the unrealistic quotas that leads to such exploitation. Intel is promising a conflict free microprocessor in 2013, proof of the power of the conscientious consumer. We cannot stop there though, we must ask that they carry this ethic into the factories as well.
At the moment there is no such thing as a “fair trade tablet” or an ethically sourced iPhone, but that doesn’t mean that we have to sit by and continue to feed the unsustainable demand for conflict minerals that fund terrorism and human trafficking.
When we resist the urge to upgrade we leave room in our bank accounts to put our money towards more life giving purchases and we leave room in our spirits for lessons in contentment and simplicity. As always there is more to the picture, it cannot be simplified into a 554 word blog post, but I will be posting one more piece to the puzzle in the days to come.
Articles for additional reading:
Congo’s efforts to block conflict minerals thwarted by war
Poor conditions at Apple Suppliers
Why apple doesn’t make our iPhones in the U.S. http://www.alternet.org/story/155830/the_real_reason_apple_cant_make_your_iphone_in_america
Intel’s new microprocessor http://www.bit-tech.net/news/hardware/2012/05/18/intel-conflict-minerals/1