A boy carries a bag used to transport cobalt-laden dirt and rock at Musompo, a mineral market outside Kolwezi, Congo. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

 

Separate groups of the world’s leading technology companies are launching two initiatives to curb “the worst forms of child labor” and other abusive practices in the supply chain for cobalt, a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric cars.

About 60 percent of the world’s cobalt originates in the Congo, where hand-dug mines rife with dangers attract legions of poorly equipped “artisanal” miners who work for as little as $2 a day.

Apple, HP, Samsung SDI and Sony have joined an effort known as the Responsible Cobalt Initiative. It is being led by a Chinese business group, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters, and supported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to the Chinese group.

Members of the initiative pledged to follow OECD guidelines for mining supply chains, which call for companies to trace how cobalt is being extracted, transported, manufactured and sold. Any abuses would require immediate correction.

Advocacy groups have alleged for years that cobalt was posing deadly risks to miners and causing environmental damage, but eradicating the worst abuses has proved difficult because tracing cobalt in consumer products back to the mines involves global leaps — from Africa to China to world markets — and across many companies.

 

The Washington Post earlier this year published an investigation detailing abuses in Congo’s artisanal cobalt supply chain, showing how miners — including children — worked in dangerous, at times deadly conditions as they tunneled hundreds of feet underground for dollars a day to reach the precious mineral. The article also showed the potential health effects, including birth defects, that medical researchers have begun to connect to the mining activity. The Post for the first time connected this troubling artisanal cobalt trade with the batteries used by some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Apple.

Apple acknowledged that this cobalt has made its way into some of its batteries and said it was committed to working with its supplier to address underlying issues, such as extreme poverty, that result in harsh work conditions and child labor.

The role of the Chinese business organization in the new initiative is considered a key advantage — the bulk of the supply chain runs through that country. Several companies with key roles in refining and packaging the mineral for batteries have joined the initiative, including Zhejiang Huayou, a Chinese company that buys cobalt from Congo miners and was featured in The Post’s coverage.

“The problem cannot be fixed by one company,” said Bryce Lee, Huayou’s new manager for responsible sourcing. "So I think it’s great, surprising even, that so many companies have come together."

The new initiative is “a very positive sign of change, ” said Tyler Gillard, project head for the OECD. “Such strong involvement of Chinese industry in particular is uncommon for these types of initiatives and really exciting.”

Collectively, the group is aiming to promote cooperation with the government of the Congo.

Separately, a business group known as the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition has announced the new “Responsible Raw Materials Initiative.”

The EICC said companies need to expand scrutiny of their supply chains beyond the traditional four “conflict” minerals covered by U.S. legislation — tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. These minerals, when taken from the Congo region, receive extra attention because of potential ties to funding militias.

The EICC said the decision to begin looking at other minerals was motivated by “a growing body of research” — including work by advocacy groups and The Post — that showed abuses occurred in the production of these other minerals, too.

Bob Mitchell, EICC vice president for social and environmental responsibility, said one of the minerals the initiative is considering is cobalt from Congo.

The EICC announced its initiative last month, just before the start of a U.N. forum on business and human rights.

Membership in the EICC includes Apple, Dell, Foxconn, Ford Motors and other companies, and 19 EICC-member companies have signed pledges to support the new initiative, Mitchell said.

Exactly what to do about the artisanal mining of cobalt is a matter of heated debate. The practice is rife with dangers. On the other hand, it also helps desperately poor people make a living, particularly in the rural areas of Congo.

Some long-standing critics of the cobalt supply chain view the Responsible Cobalt Initiative merely as a good first step.

“Implementation is obviously what it’s all about,” said Mark Dummett, an Amnesty International researcher who has studied cobalt supply chains. “We’d now like to see the downstream companies like Apple and Samsung disclose the names of their cobalt smelters as well as disclose the risks they have identified in their supply chains.”

Companies said a collective effort such as this is required to eradicate any abuses in the cobalt supply chain.

“HP recognizes that in order to build leverage over supply chain actors that we do not have a direct business relationship with, we need to work with other companies and organizations to drive collective action,” Jay Celorie, HP's global program manager for human rights, ethics and compliance, said in a statement.

Other companies, such as Tesla and LG Chem, said they are weighing membership in the Responsible Cobalt Initiative or undertaking other ways of ensuring that their supply chains are clean and humane.

“We are evaluating a number of new international initiatives to address the issues in cobalt production and are working quickly to determine how Tesla can be most effectively involved,” Tesla said in a statement.

Other industry groups are responding to complaints about the cobalt supply chain, too.

Last week, Umicore, a large Brussels-based maker of battery parts and other cobalt products, announced that the auditing firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers had validated the safeguards it has in place to prevent the use of any cobalt arising from questionable environmental or labor practices. Among other things, the company seeks to be able to trace the origins of every bit of cobalt that goes in its products.

Umicore officials said that seeking the third-party validation of their cobalt procedures should ease the concerns of the consumer companies that are their customers. “Our customers have valuable brands to protect,” said Marc Van Sande, executive vice president of a company business unit. This approach “provides comfort to customers about the provenance and the ethical nature of the cobalt used in the materials they source.”

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