After reading the Times piece, a reader of Wired.com wrote the responsive CEO an email inquiring how Apple sources their products' minerals and asking if the company is making an effort to use ones with conflict-free origins. About an hour later, Jobs sent this reply:
Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem.
Sent from my iPhone
Presumably, Jobs' iPhone erroneously corrected "conflict free" to "conflict few".
But basically what Jobs says here echoes what we know already: tech companies are insisting that their suppliers pledge to using conflict free minerals, but there's no guarantee that those pledges reflect the reality of the situation. Jobs suggests that there's no way for the suppliers to know where their minerals come from; activist groups like Project Enough insinuate that the suppliers could be deliberately misreporting the origins of their minerals. The group is pushing for tech companies to be more active in sourcing their minerals, instead of relying on the suppliers to do so themselves.
Still, it's pretty amazing that a customer can email a CEO about this type of an issue and get an response in a matter of minutes. With such direct, transparent communication, at least both the customer and the company know that this difficult, complex problem is one with which the other is concerned. [Wired]