/ Technology

Would you like to see Fairtrade tech?

Fairtrade coffee, tea and chocolate have been a big success with Brits, but it’s not just food that should require an ethical supply chain. Would you be happier buying tech if you knew it had more ethical components?

With sales of smartphones and tablets increasing year on year, there’s a huge demand for the minerals required in their manufacture.

Sadly, many of these minerals are sourced from some of the most troubled and impoverished areas of the world.

Conflict minerals in your pocket

If you own a DVD player, mobile phone or tablet, then unknowingly you also own a small amount of cassiterite, tungsten, tantalum and gold. All are essential in producing tech products, and all tend to be sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which sits on vast mineral resources of $24tn.

The DRC is one of the most conflict-ridden parts of the world, and its mineral wealth has been used to fund militia groups that have perpetuated a conflict that has claimed millions of lives and seen weaponised rape on a colossal scale.

NGO Enough, a human-rights group, estimates that armed groups in the DRC earned some $185m in 2008 from trading in minerals that ended up in Western consumer electronics. It also suggests that around a third of the workforce in the DRC’s small-scale mines is child labour.

US calls for audits, not bans

In an attempt to address this issue, the US passed the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in August 2010, which included a clause saying manufacturers must audit their supply chains and disclose if ‘conflict’ minerals were used in the manufacturing process.

However, while this act calls for ‘due diligence’ on the part of manufacturers, it does not demand immediate cessation of the use of conflict minerals, nor does it threaten to penalise manufacturers using conflict minerals in their supply chains.

Some manufacturers are nonetheless taking a lead. Motorola has spearheaded the Solutions for Hope programme to ensure its raw materials come from responsible sources. And Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Progress Report states a commitment to ethical sourcing of minerals:

‘Apple’s commitment to social responsibility extends to the source of raw materials used in the manufacturing of our products.

‘We require our suppliers to use only metals that have been procured through a conflict-free process and from sources that adhere to our standards of human rights and environmental protection.’

Apple and Motorola are taking a worthy step. By sourcing minerals from ethically-approved mines in the DRC, or from alternative regions like Australia, Brazil and Canada, manufacturers can keep their products free from conflict minerals that fund suffering.

Food matters, so why not tech?

According to the Fairtrade Foundation, every day in the UK we consume 9.3 million cups of Fairtrade tea, 6.4 million cups of Fairtrade coffee, 2.3 million Fairtrade chocolate bars and 3.1 million Fairtrade bananas.

Clearly the ethos of buying food from an ethical source has struck a chord with Brits. Is it time to demand a similar standard for the technology we carry around in our pockets?

Would you like to see tech manufacturers signing up to a clearly marked scheme which will allow consumers to make an ethical choice in the products they purchase?

Do you care whether your tech products are ethically made?

Yes, I do care (56%, 788 Votes)

I didn't realise this was a problem (29%, 408 Votes)

No, I don't care (14%, 201 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,397

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Yes, we should be demanding ‘fairer trade’ for everything on our shopping list. As shoppers we need to take a responsibility for the people who provide us with goods. Do we care if a boy of 5 who’s hardly had enough to eat picks the beans that make our wake-up morning coffee? Yes, I hope we do care, and the UK’s keen adoption of Fairtrade products surely demonstrates that increasingly we do. Yet Fairtrade coffee still only represents considerably less than 1% of the world’s entire coffee production, so we have a long way to go… The working conditions of those who provide us with high-tech products should also give us cause for concern.

We were the first to import ethically sourced coffee to the UK back in 1976. It was years before Fairtrade started… But we created a stir when we imported almost 3 tonnes of instant coffee from Tanzania to the UK to help support manufacturing in the Third World. Our labelling was unique, and featured a photo of a pile of coins, showing who-got-what for the price of a jar of coffee. With the coffee came a booklet called, “The World In Your Coffee Cup.” We provided sufficient reading material to last several cups of coffee! Last month BBC radio interviewed me about our pioneering ‘Campaign Coffee’, that helped to start the idea of ethically sourced coffee in Great Britain. The broadcast is now available on YouTube (4 minutes):



Apple responded to criticism from Greenpeace about use of toxic chemicals and other environmental issues, and it is good that they are taking a lead regarding sourcing of materials. I would like to be sure that Apple has stopped using sweatshops and for them to stop producing Nike-branded products because of the unenviable reputation of Nike in exploitation of children and adults. Apple can afford to set an example in ethical and responsible manufacturing and sales and still make a healthy profit.

I believe that Fairtrade is successful because of the small number of products and the fact that they are relatively inexpensive. I am not sure that many people would be prepared to pay extra for all items they buy in a supermarket. It seems unlikely that Tesco etc would fund the additional cost. Electronic goods are keenly priced and any brand that charges extra because the minerals used to produce them are ethically sourced could struggle to compete.

Try Fairtrade electronics by all means. I am not convinced it will work and what is really needed is for every company to behave responsibly to be allowed to sell their goods.

Tj Pither says:
18 December 2011

I am sorry to say that I dislike any Fairtrade Products. Always a strange taste.


I think we should concentrate far more – about Made in Britain


Sadly, British made goods do not feature much in mass market electronic products. Instead our civilised society exploits people in China and ships products from the other side of the globe.


What are ethics?

So buying something from the DRC is unethical? How about Nigeria and their uranium? Saudi Arabia/Russia/Iraq/Iran and their oil? China and their multitude of wares? the US?

Personally whether the product actually works is of more concern to me rather than where the components are sourced. Realistically if you are that way inclined, you could find issue with every single country in the world and you’d never buy anything.

With the financial issues (hedge funds, banking bonuses with the resultant unemployment) that the UK has had, perhaps we are “unethical” also. Just a thought….


I think that’s an interesting point, dean – at what point in a product lifecycle do you start or stop caring about the morality? No doubt if you traced the origins of, say, the plastics in any tech device like a mobile phone, they could lead you back to some facet of the oil trade which might have questionable ethics by some people’s standards.

That said, I think any efforts made by companies like Motorola and Apple to guarantee their component minerals are not linked to profiteering in conflict zones is a worthy step, and I’m curious to know how interested many people would be in having such efforts clearly stated on the packaging of a product


I would like to see this information on the packaging and also in the product description because we often do not see the packaging before purchase, particularly with electronic goods being increasingly bought online.

I would also like the information provided to be accurate. Knowing the lies and misrepresentation that are commonplace in advertising I no longer believe much that I read.

This is an interesting topic, Rich, but I imagine that most people are too busy with preparations for Christmas.