/ Sustainability, Technology

Does it matter where your tech comes from?

Computer chip

Buried beneath the 3D printers and bendy TVs of CES, Intel announced it would no longer source the raw materials it needs to make computer chips from ‘conflict zones’.

Many parts inside our smartphones, laptops and tablets require rare minerals like tungsten, tin and gold. These minerals are often found in countries where production and the trade of materials can be controlled by armed groups.

Intel announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Los Angeles that all the microprocessors it makes in 2014 will be ‘conflict free’. Intel says it will do this by cleaning up the supply chain in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it sources many of its raw materials.

‘We felt an obligation to implement changes’

Intel’s chief exec Brian Krzanich said:

‘We felt an obligation to implement changes in our supply chain to ensure that our business and our products were not inadvertently funding human atrocities.

‘This is not an issue we would normally be talking about at CES. But it’s an issue that is important to me. You begin to think about the impact of the supply chain and the potential issues you can be causing.’

Both Apple and HP have made similar noises about becoming ‘conflict free’ over the past 12 months and it does feel like the tide of opinion in tech is turning. But is there still some way to go?

Shopping ethically?

This is an issue that Friends of the Earth (FOE) is working on with its Make it Better campaign. FOE’s executive director Andy Atkins wrote in his guest post here on Which? Conversation:

‘We looked at the origins of the 2g of tin-rich solder in every mobile, and found that tin mining on the Indonesian island of Bangka is destroying tropical forests, choking coral reefs and devastating communities.’

I try to shop ethically for cosmetic products and clothes where possible and when money allows. I’ve never done so for tech. I think I will now. If I was choosing between a laptop with an Intel chip or one built by a less responsible manufacturer, I’d personally go for the Intel.

How much does social responsibility affect your choice of tech, or other products for that matter? Would you shop elsewhere if a company was using ‘conflict minerals’?

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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It would be more effective to insist that manufacturers meet or exceed targets rather than expecting the consumer to look at environmental issues when buying electronic devices. The source of the solder is hardly likely to be a major issue when most people buy a new smartphone or laptop.

EdJane says:
10 January 2014

I take the opposite view. No one cares so why should the manufacturers. If we wanted goods not tainted by war, worker rights abuses or anything else we’d let the companies know. We don’t. All we care about, as ever, is cheaper products.

We create the demand and manufacturers bring the supply. It can’t be blamed on them.

The difference is that legislation can be applied to require manufacturers to meet or exceed standards if there is a case for doing so. Since the same rules apply to everyone, it does not affect competition.

I suspect if we examine many products some will emanate from countries where human rights are abused, slave labour is employed, environmental considerations are not observed, corruption is rife – whether it is rare earths, timber, oil or food for example. Where do we stop with our ethics?

That’s why I said legislation should be applied if there is a case for doing so. Hopefully those who make the decisions will be well informed and act wisely.

Not politicians then!

I would not trust politicians to organise the consumption of lots of beer in the place it is made. 🙂

But seriously, it would be nice to see companies competing with each other to gain public respect for their environmental and social responsibility. I’m happy to spend a bit more on goods that I expect to be durable and could be persuaded to support companies that behave responsibly.

I think your trust is misplaced – it is probably what they are best at 🙁 . I would (and, I think, do) pay for reliability and durability where it makes sense. However, I regret I find it impossible to decide whether many companies are responsible – the information is just not there. Easier to find those that seem irresponsible. But there are some companies I trust more than others, and will deal with those whenever possible. Something I have learned recently about watches – you don’t get what you pay for (unless you think a name is worth paying for). I bought a moderately expensive brand of watch for my wife a couple of years ago, and as a joke substituted a pink plastic digital Barbie watch in the box. The latter watch is still usable………. I am a bit naive.

It is relatively easy to make an educated guess about the quality and durability of a product based on the reputation of a company. Of course some well respected companies produce some very poor products, so care is needed.

When I read about companies’ commitment to the environment and to their employees, I don’t tend to trust what they say, any more than what I might read in their advertising. Even if what they say is true, do their sub-contractors and suppliers show the same responsibility. Though I am not happy with some of the legislation that is dreamed up by the EU, I see this as the only realistic way of ensuring that companies behave responsibly or working towards this goal. Though I have wielded soldering irons since I was a kid, the first time was when the problems of tin mining for use in solder were raised in an earlier Conversation or in the magazine. I doubt that I will give this much thought when I next buy a mobile phone, which is not a frequent occurrence. I can manage to look out for Fair Trade ground coffee and free-range eggs but I really need some organisation to help ensure that making my phone has not seriously impacted on the well-being of anyone involved in its manufacture.

One of the problems with non-durable electronic equipment is that it is rarely economic to repair, meaning more use of resources and the uncertainties about whether the waste is effectively recycled.

Your anecdote about Mrs R’s Barbie watch reminds me of a former colleague who wore an old but reliable chrome Casio digital watch (press a button to display the time!) rather than his expensive and unreliable Rolex watch.

Sean says:
10 January 2014

Intel’s processors can’t all be conflict-free as many of them are produced in Israel where revenue from the industry funds a rogue regime accused of the crime of apartheid, war crimes and crimes against humanity.