Whether it’s self-driving cars or wearable computers, consumer tech companies are all racing to launch the next generation of revolutionary gadgets. But they’re also locked in a steady race to improve the quality of existing products. It wasn’t long ago that companies were vying for the lead in high definition video. Now they’re scrambling to offer 4K resolution, or video with four times the pixel density.
We hope the same desire to constantly raise standards will apply to a product Intel announced earlier this month: the first conflict free microprocessor.
Let’s first be clear: Intel deserves a lot of credit for taking a responsible stand on this issue. Since 1998, a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed more than 5 million lives. Profits from the mining of certain “conflict minerals”—gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten—have been helping to finance brutal rebel warlords in eastern Congo. In 2010, as part of the Dodd Frank financial bill, Congress required companies to disclose whether the gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten in their products might be financing Congo’s war. Some companies have resisted the law. But Intel has not only complied, but made real changes in its supply chain, ensuring that it doesn’t use conflict minerals in its microprocessors.
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich made the announcement during his keynote speech earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. In the middle of his presentation, Krzanich suddenly stopped. “Okay. I’m going to switch gears for a minute now,” he said. “This is not an issue we would normally talk about at CES, but it is an issue that is very important and personal to me. That issue is conflict minerals.” He then played a video on the civil war in Congo and announced that henceforth, all of Intel’s computer chips would be conflict free.
Intel’s announcement is an encouraging development for human rights advocates. The conflict minerals provision in the Dodd Frank bill was the brainchild of the Enough Project, an NGO dedicated to fighting genocide and crimes against humanity. Intel’s move shows that, with the right mixture of government policy, non-profit advocacy, and market pressure, multinational companies can awaken to their global responsibilities. Their CEOs can become more socially conscious. Changing corporate behavior isn’t a pipe dream.
But even as Intel gets a deserved pat on the back for going conflict free, other tech companies shouldn’t merely be deciding whether to match Intel’s move. As with any other tech product, they should be plotting how they can leapfrop Intel.
The truth is, there’s a lot wrong with the mining industry that Intel’s conflict free standard glosses over. Gold mining, in particular, is a nasty business. Gold mining generates about 20 tons of toxic waste for every third of an ounce of gold—the amount of gold in a single gold ring. Mercury released by small-scale gold miners is the leading global cause of mercury pollution, ahead of coal-fired power plants. And many small-scale miners, some of them children, toil in slave-like conditions for little to no pay. Last year, a study reported that 450,000 people in Congo, mostly miners, are trapped in conditions that amount to modern slavery.
Tech companies like Apple have been scrutinized for the labor conditions at their Asian factories. Why, then, is it OK for the gold in Apple’s iPhones to be mined by children? A “conflict free” standard clearly doesn’t account for a lot of the abuses and atrocities that consumers care about.
Our company knows this only too well. Since 2003, when diamond-fueled civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola were already drawing to a close, the diamond industry has proudly proclaimed that its diamonds are “conflict free.” Back then, “conflict free” seemed like an advance. But over a decade later, that standard has been exposed as wholly inadequate, a standard so flimsy that diamond-thirsty dictators don’t even run afoul of it when they kill and enslave their own people. Worse than that, the “conflict free” standard has become a red herring, used by the diamond industry to distract consumers from the violence, child labor, and other abuses that plague diamond mining. That is why, at Brilliant Earth, we now call our own diamonds “beyond conflict free.”
Intel’s decision to ensure that its chips are “conflict free” raises our hopes, but also our fears. Will the tech industry go the way of the diamond industry, making “conflict free” the de facto ethical standard in perpetuity? (There are already reasons to hope that the civil war in Congo may be ending. That’s welcome news, but it means that the conflict free standard may not be relevant for long.) Or at next year’s CES, will a tech company announce that the metals in its products are not only free of conflict, but of human rights abuses? Better yet, will major tech companies commit to using only recycled precious metals?
Intel has made the first move. Now, in the coming years, tech companies will have a choice. They can adopt the conflict free standard and stop there, following the diamond industry down a path of self-satisfaction and stalled progress. Or, they can do what they’re doing with high definition video: raise standards once again.