To continue to produce mobile phones, Apple and Samsung will have to deal with the controversial cobalt industry
Apple finally seems to have gotten tired of the unethical supply chains that create the company’s ability to run out of raw material for the production of its handsets.
According to a Bloomberg report , Apple “is in contact to buy cobalt long-term supply directly from the miners for the first time.” If this is true, the company would work directly with the workers, who are primarily located in the Democratic Republic of Congo and have already been subject to considerable human rights violations, including the use of child labour.
Indeed, Apple (along with Samsung and Sony) were criticized in 2016 after a report from Amnesty International suggested that the company was using suppliers who purchased cobalt from areas with rampant child exploitation.
According to the complaint, approximately 40,000 children worked in the cobalt mines of Congo. The country provides more than 50% of the world’s cobalt. Metal has become highly valuable in recent years for being an important component in the production of lithium-ion batteries that power cell phones, laptops, vaporizers and future electric cars.
“No cobalt, no car battery. It is no hyperbole to say that with today’s technologies, cobalt is needed to save the planet from climate change, “said David S. Abraham, senior fellow at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in free translation) and superintendent of Technology, Rare and Electronics Materials Center, to Gizmodo.
Metal is so precious and rare that many battery manufacturers have been struggling to secure their own supply . But receiving a cobalt stock from the Republic of Congo imposes some very specific humanitarian challenges on companies. And that’s why some Apple competitors, such as Samsung SDI, a Samsung subsidiary that focuses almost exclusively on battery production, has been looking for alternative methods to secure cobalt supply chains. In the case of Samsung SDI, the company announced last week it would buy shares in a company that recycles old technology.
Abraham points out that Apple’s plan may be something good for mines to be involved in the business. In addition to keeping the supply of an increasingly precious metal, Apple working with the mines may potentially allow the company to decide how rare the metal is collected.
“They want to make sure they have reduced the environmental impact of mining and increase production as much as possible of human rights problems,” Abraham told Gizmodo. “They want to make their iPhones and whatever they are producing in their labs and want to make sure they will not end up on the Economist cover with a story accusing them of having fueled a war in the Congo.”
The supply chain for companies like Apple to Samsung have been criticized for actions related to child labour. These companies – and most electronics manufacturers – make use of chains that, though seem ethical, often are not.
There is an obvious example of Apple’s relationship with Foxconn, which has already made headlines for making use of child labour and sheltering employees in grotesque conditions . But there are also issues not as visible but as problematic, such as child exploitation in cobalt mines, lithium mining that makes companies rich.
Abraham says that this tendency of companies to go directly into the source of the components they need will probably continue. “Companies fear that the market will not provide what they need,” he told Gizmodo. Which means that we will possibly begin to see more and more Apple mines and Samsung processing plants in the future. It is a problem if you fear that companies will become big and vast, but if these companies can actually reduce the number of human rights violations taking place in the mines, then the future may not be so bad.