Tech giant Intel on Monday announced that its entire 2014 line of microprocessors would be free from so-called “conflict minerals,” making them the first in the rare mineral-heavy industry to completely phase out their use in one of their products.
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich was speaking at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on the company’s strategy and new products to be released over the coming year when he revealed the culmination of their efforts. The tantalum, tungsten, tin, and gold that Intel purchases — all of which play heavily into the manufacturing of microprocessors and other electronics — will all be guaranteed to not have come from mines that pass their profits on to armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other mineral-rich areas of Africa.
“The minerals are important, but not as important as the lives of the people who work to get them,” Krzanich said. Enough Project senior researcher Sasha Lezhnev told ThinkProgress that Intel’s step was a “huge breakthrough to defund the warlords” that operate in the Congo. “It really does help move the supply chain from being opaque and turning a blind-eye on its sourcing to being more transparent.”
The 2010 financial sector reform bill known as Dodd-Frank and its provisions related to conflict minerals has spurred many of the changes seen in the tech sector related to how it sources its raw materials. Since its passage, Intel and other electronics industry manufacturers have been working to come into compliance, both to adhere to the law and for the boost in popularity that will surely come with being able to market their products as “conflict-free.” Lezhnev said consumers would begin demanding such products, calling it the “wave of the future,” and noting that he’d already received questions about when the first conflict-free iPhone would be available. “Now that Intel has made the first conflict-free product,” he continued, “it’s important for Apple, Boeing, Tiffany, to make their own conflict-free products.”
Last year, Intel adopted its first “Conflict Minerals Policy” in which it declared that “[a]s part of Intel’s commitment to corporate responsibility and respecting human rights in our own operations and in our global supply chain, it is Intel’s goal to seek to use tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold in our products that are ‘DRC conflict free’ while continuing to support responsible in-region mineral sourcing from the DRC and adjoining countries.”
Krzanich was originally determined to end all purchases of materials in the DR Congo, according to Fast Company, but quickly realized that doing so would negatively impact local miners and opted instead to focus on the smelters of the raw ore into usable metals. As part of that effort, Apple and Intel announced in 2011 that they were joining the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and its Conflict-Free Smelter program, which “requires mineral processing plants either prove that they don’t fund the ongoing hostilities in central Africa or peddle their war-supporting wares elsewhere.”
“It took years, but Intel finally hunted down all of the smelters used to produce all the minerals in its microprocessors,” Fast Company reported. “Now they’re all conflict-free, too. Most have been validated by third-party audits.”
The precise role of conflict minerals — the spiritual successor of West Africa’s “conflict diamonds” in the advocacy space — and the effectiveness of Dodd-Frank in preventing violence in the Congo is still debated. Some critics maintain that the 2010 law’s unintended consequences make it more difficult for Congolese to make a living, effectively acting as an embargo in its early days before companies began putting in the legwork needed to responsibly source minerals from the Congo. The Enough Project, which lead the charge for Intel and other tech companies cutting conflict minerals out of their supply chain and releases rankings of said companies’ efforts, maintains that cutting off a financial resource for the armed groups that terrorize the region is an important step towards lasting peace.
So while a good first step, making electronics conflict-free isn’t a silver bullet, as Lezhnev told Fast Company. “It’s also making sure the rest of the causes of the conflict are addressed, and sending messages to the U.S government, the UN, and other governments in the region that they need to get this peace process organized,” he said.