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Apple, HP, Samsung, Sony Join Effort to Keep Child Labor Out of Cobalt Supply Chains

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

Apple, HP, Samsung SDI and Sony have joined the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, with a pledge to follow the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidelines for mining supply chains, which call for traceability and immediate correction of any abuses. Separately, a business group known as the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) has announced the new “Responsible Raw Materials Initiative.” Both efforts aim to curb child labor and other abusive practices in the supply chain for cobalt, an important ingredient in lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric cars, The Washington Post reports.

Cobalt poses deadly risks to miners, particularly “artisanal” miners who work in hand-dug mines in Congo for as little as $2 a day. About 60 percent of the world’s cobalt originates in the country. Eradicating abuses in the supply chain has proved difficult given the involvement of numerous companies across Africa, China and other world markets.

The leading role of the Chinese business group, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters, in the Responsible Cobalt Initiative is considered a key advantage, since the bulk of the supply chains run through China. Several other Chinese companies that refine and package the mineral for batters have joined as well, including Zhejiang Huayou.

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

“Such strong involvement of Chinese industry in particular is uncommon for these types of initiatives and really exciting,” Tyler Gillard, the project head for the OECD, added.

The Post reports that the group aims to promote cooperation with the government of Congo, as well. Other companies, such as Tesla and LG Chem, are reportedly weighing membership in the Responsible Cobalt Initiative or undertaking other ways of supply chain responsibility.

The EICC is advocating that companies need to look beyond the traditional four “conflict” minerals covered by U.S. legislation – tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold – which have traditionally received extra attention due to ties to funding militias in the Congo region. Cobalt is one of the other minerals that the EICC argues has been linked to abuses in the area. Membership includes Apple, Dell, Foxconn, Ford Motors and other companies. 19 EICC member companies have signed pledges to support the new initiative.

Other companies have sought third-party validation. Brussels-based manufacturer Umicore recently announced that auditing firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers had validated its safeguards to prevent the use of cobalt from questionable environmental or labor practices. The company believes its approach provides satisfactory reassurance to its customers.

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