One way of measuring the importance of tantalum, of tungsten, tin or gold, is certainly by the volume of products they help produce. Our modern technology would be significantly different without these materials inside them. Our cell phone may not function as well or our computers could be more expensive. But maybe more significant than their elemental properties, is the importance of how they’ve tied two disparate worlds together.
By linking modern technology to the violent, impoverished source of these minerals, we’re able to glimpse the true cost of our digital society.
When we examine the complex supply chain of modern electronics, we’re able to ask serious questions about the technology that envelops our lives. Such as, what are the real and human costs of using these minerals in our gadgets? Do the benefits that smartphones and computers provide outweigh the potential cost of how they were created? Are we willing to pay more for a product that we know is made from ethically mined materials? Can we be confident that legislation will force industry to create a truly transparent, “conflict free” product, and is that a valuable goal?
A Step Forward
The new U.S. law requiring U.S. companies to disclose what steps they are taking to ensure that their products don’t contain “conflict minerals” is certainly a step towards transparency.
Additional certification of supply lines may not even greatly affect the price of products, states Aaron Hall, a policy analyst for the advocacy organization Enough Project. He has said that auditing a supply chain for conflict minerals would only increase the price of a cell phone by a penny.
Perhaps most daunting for those who seek a resolution to using conflict minerals is the continued rise in demand for tantalum using products. Since 1995, average yearly growth of tantalum demand has been 8-12 percent, driven largely by the use of tantalum capacitors in portable electronics. Tantalum capacitors expect to see sustained growth of 9-10 percent for the foreseeable future.
The human cost to the DRC for our digital world has been high. Smartphones and modern electronics did not cause violence in the DRC, they merely serve as an example of the disconnect between our technology and it’s source material. But for now, the manufacturers of the world will await regulative requirements, advocacy organizations will continue to push for accountability, consumers will await the next must-have device, and conflict wages on in the DRC, where wars are fought over minerals westerners use to power their lives.