Technology TEDTalks

How can you help push for fair trade cell phones?

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Bandi Mbubi has conflicting feelings about his cell phone.

On the one hand, Mbubi — who fled his native country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as a student activist fearing for his safety — has seen firsthand the ability of cell phones to connect people in the formerly cut-off part of the world. In this moving talk from TEDxExeter, Mbubi reveals that cell phones have allowed for himself and his children to have a relationship with his parents, who are still living in the Congo.

But at the same time, Mbubi sees cell phones as intrinsically linked to the war in the Congo. It all comes down to one mineral, tantalum, which is used in cell phones, computers, video game consoles and other electronics. The mining of this mineral funds armed conflict in the war-torn country.

“What you hold in your hand has contributed to unimaginable human suffering. Over 5 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, countless women, men and children have been raped, tortured or enslaved. The quest for extracting this mineral has not only aided but fueled the ongoing war in the Congo,” says Mbubi in this impassioned talk. “Why should we allow such a wonderful, brilliant and necessary product to be the cause of unnecessary suffering for human beings?”

As Mbubi points out, “We demand fair trade food and fair trade clothes. It’s time to demand fair trade phones.”

To help inform consumers about the human cost of their cell phones and other electronics, and to apply pressure to companies to comb their supply chains and carefully chart the sourcing of their tantalum, Mbubi has created the non-profit CongoCalling.org. And if you waited in line for an iPhone 5 last night, know that Apple is one of the companies Mbubi is hoping to affect with the campaign. While Apple does have a policy on sourcing conflict-free minerals, and is currently conducting audits of its supply chain, Congo Calling hopes that consumer awareness will bring about swifter change.

Below, a few ways that you can help the push for fair trade phones.

  1. Alert your politicians to the situation. Congo Calling would like to see governments, especially those that are large international aid donors, pressure both phone companies and the Congolese government to take action on this issue. For residents of the UK, Congo Calling has a template for a letter you can send to members of Parliament, as well as a resource to find out the name and contact information for your member of Parliament. For residents of the United States, GovTrack.us is a great way to find information on your representatives in Congress.
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  2. Recycle your old electronics and keep your current electronics longer. As consumers with spare income, it’s hard to resist getting out the credit card when a new shiny gadget appears on the market. But our constant updating of devices is part of the problem here, as each new phone and tablet requires minerals. While this article from IPS News notes that recycling alone won’t meet the worldwide demand for tantalum, we can make a difference by putting more space inbetween our electronics purchases. (Need further convincing to hold off on that iPhone 5? Read this article from Tech Insights which shows that producing the phone only costs $169. Read more at Apple Insider and Mashable.)
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  3. Sign a petition for Tim Cook of Apple. The creator of this petition on Change.org, Delly Mawazo Sesete, writes, “I want an iPhone for the holidays this year, but having monitored mining sites in eastern Congo for several years documenting human rights abuses, I have seen firsthand the rape, violence, and devastation being fueled by the trade in minerals found in electronics products. Join me in asking Apple to create a conflict-free product that includes conflict-free minerals from eastern Congo that help Congolese communities by the 2013 holiday season.” Congo Calling hopes the petition could urge Apple to accelerate their research on mineral sourcing.
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  4. Ask Samsung to change its policy. In order to avoid using minerals tied to conflict, Samsung has stopped trading with suppliers in the Congo altogether. Congo Calling suggests writing or calling the company to urge them towards informed trading rather than no trading.
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  5. Write HTC and ask for a policy on conflict-free minerals. Congo Calling also has its eye on HTC, theTaiwanese manufacturer of smartphones and tablets, because they currently have no policy on sourcing conflict-free minerals. Again, the organization hopes that consumer pressure — through emails and placing complaint calls — will nudge the company to pay more attention to mineral sourcing.
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  6. Ask your employer or university to start a campaign. Congo Calling applauds the efforts of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The University has asked Dell, Apple and HP to provide a “conflict free guarantee.” See a video students created explaining the guarantee below.