The past two weeks have seen numerous eulogies for Apple cofounder and visionary Steve Jobs, who revolutionized the modern world. And while these eulogies are certainly due, there is another tragedy in the computer manufacturing industry which is ongoing and deserving of our attention, as well.
As early as March 2004, the United Nations warned that the manufacture of an average desktop computer and laptop produced 1.8 tons of total raw materials and other resources: more than ten times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals. Big-name NGOs such as Greenpeace lobbied for reductions in toxic waste.
Preceding this warning, another UN report had expressed concern over “blood coltan.” Coltan is a mineral highly prized by the hi-tech industry for its varied use in consumer electronics products, including laptops. Like the “blood diamonds” of Sierra Leone and Liberia a decade ago, coltan mining fuels the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war economy. Coltan mining by Rwandan- or Ugandan-backed rebel groups has increased exponentially with the rise in demand for laptops. Human Rights Watch reports numerous violations linked to coltan mining, including slave labor and civilian murder.
The mining of coltan has also had devastating ecological impacts. The rebel forces mine in the ore-rich national park of the Congo. Hungry miners hunt endangered elephants, okapis and gorillas. In the Masisi region, the trace uranium and thorium found in coltan makes the landscape radioactive, polluting rivers that are desperately needed for irrigation given the region’s rapid desertification.
The problems are not limited to the attainment of raw materials. The treatment of many computer manufacturing factory workers is appalling. In Taiwanese firms such as Qanta, Compal, or Wistron, there is pervasive worker abuse. Workers have to work at least 70-80 hours of overtime every month, and sometimes 150-160 overtime hours every month.
Since 2004, there has been a significant, although incomplete, greening of desktop and laptop computer manufacture, with numerous manufacturers showcasing their ecological credentials. Apple was a leader in this movement, introducing the A Greener Apple campaign, which proposed:
Apple was also the first computer manufacturer to meet the ENERGY STAR standards, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy that ensures that products have maximum energy efficiency. These aims are laudable and can only be congratulated. They are, however, only a small part of much bigger change that needs to occur.
Today, consumers must demand fair trade computers, which can be as profitable as their environmentally friendly counterparts. The greening of the computer industry came as a result of intensive lobbying, demonstrating that reform comes if consumers are vocal.
TCO, a Swedish transnational accreditation agency, encourages companies to proactively take social responsibility for manufacturing workers’ welfare. This contributed to Apple’s new program, where Chinese workers receive 1-2% of the profits from Apple products. Through the voluntary Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition’s Conflict-Free Smelter program, buyers can be informed which laptops contain conflict-free minerals. This listing can aid consumers who are motivated to take action. In April of this year, Apple, along with Intel, announced they would be joining the list. Perhaps their example will encourage others to follow suit.
Bottom line: The unethical sourcing of minerals like blood coltan has devastating ecological and social consequences. Workers in computer-manufacturing factories are often ill-treated, even poisoned. The information supplied by TCO and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition’s Conflict-Free Smelter program can empower us to action. We really do have the power to stop numerous “blood coltan” killings and the environmental destruction that has devastating effects for endangered animals and increasingly famished people.