Can I Buy a Smartphone That's Not Soaked in the Blood of the World's Poor?
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If you are too well connected, you stop thinking. The clamour, the immediacy, the tendency to absorb other people's thoughts, interrupt the deep abstraction required to find your own way. This is one of the reasons why I have not yet bought a smartphone. But the technology is becoming ever harder to resist. Perhaps this year I will have to succumb. So I have asked a simple question: can I buy an ethical smartphone?
There are dozens of issues, such as starvation wages, bullying, abuse and 60-hour weeks in the sweatshops manufacturing them, the debt bondage into which some of the workers are pressed, the energy used, the hazardous waste produced. But I will concentrate on just one: are the components soaked in the blood of people from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo? For 17 years, rival armies and militias have been fighting over the region's minerals. Among them are metals critical to the manufacture of electronic gadgets, without which no smartphone would exist: tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold.
While these elements are by no means the only reason for conflict there, they help to fund it, supporting a fragmented war that – through direct killings, displacement, disease and malnutrition – has now killed several million people. Rival armies have forced local people to dig in extremely dangerous conditions, have extorted minerals and money from self-employed miners, have tortured, mutilated and murdered those who don't comply, and have spread terror and violence – including gang rape and child abduction – through the rest of the population. I do not want to participate.
None of the campaigning groups wants companies to stop buying minerals from eastern Congo. Global Witness and FairPhone, for example, point out that mining supports many families in a country where 82% are considered underemployed. But they also insist that the trade can be dissociated from violence: if, and only if, companies ensure they're not buying minerals which have passed through the hands of militias. Given the potential damage to their reputations, you might have expected these firms to take the issue seriously. With a few exceptions, you would be wrong.
I began with the retailers, and the results were disappointing. Vodafone, for example, claims to have developed a social and ecological rating system, enabling its customers "to make informed decisions about the mobile phone they choose to buy". Its website says this system "was launched in the Netherlands in 2011 and will be introduced to other European markets in 2012". But all you get when you click on the link is "page not found". In Dutch. As for its claim that an ethical score "is displayed next to the product, whether you are buying online or in store", I have been unable to find any such scores on its UK site.
O2 says: "We want to share information about the social and environmental impact of the products we sell, to help customers make the right decisions." Click on the link and what do you get? A list of its monthly tariffs. It does provide eco-ratings beside its phones, but the scores are unexplained, so we can't see which issues are taken into account.
Of the manufacturers, Nokia appears to have gone furthest, and its efforts are quite impressive. Since 2001 – long before most other companies began to take an interest – it has tried to remove illegally mined tantalum from its supply chain. It now instructs its suppliers to map the routes these metals take before they reach the company. The problem is far from solved: it tells me that "there has been no credible system in the electronics industry that allows a company to determine the source of their material". There are now six initiatives by governments, voluntary groups and companies to try to get the blood out of mobile phones, and Nokia is involved in all of them.