To Keep Making Phones, Apple And Samsung Must Grapple With The World's Dirtiest Industry

Apple may finally be fed up with some of the unethical supply chains that leave the company open to possible shortages. According to a new report from Bloomberg, Apple "is in talks to buy long-term supplies of cobalt directly from miners for the first time". If this report is true, Apple would begin working directly with the mines, which are primarily located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and which have previously been accused of significant human rights violations, including the use of child labour.

A man working in a Shinkolobwe cobalt mine in 2004. (Image: AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

In fact, Apple (along with Samsung and Sony) came under fire in 2016 after an Amnesty International report suggested the company was using suppliers that bought cobalt from areas where child labour is rampant. According to the report, as many as 40,000 children work in cobalt mines in the DRC. The DRC supplies more than 50 per cent of the world's cobalt. The metal itself has become increasingly precious in the last few years as it is a key component in the lithium ion batteries that power your phone, laptop, vapes and future electric cars.

"No cobalt, no EVs. It is not hyperbole to say that with today's technologies cobalt is necessary to save the planet from climate change," David S. Abraham, senior fellow at the Institute for the Anaylsis of Global Security and overseer of the Technology, Rare and Electronics Materials Center, told Gizmodo.

The metal is so precious and rare that many battery makers have been scrambling to secure their own supplies. But getting one's cobalt supply from the DRC presents a company with some specific humanitarian challenges. Which is why some of Apple's competitors, such as Samsung SDI, a subsidiary of Samsung that focuses almost exclusively on battery production, have sought alternative methods of securing cobalt supply chains. In Samsung SDI's case, it announced just last week that it would be buying a stake in a company that recycles old tech for its precious rare earths.

Abraham notes that Apple's plan could be a good thing for mines it is involved in. Beyond locking in a supply for an increasingly more precious metal, Apple directly working with the mines may, potentially, allow the company to better manage how the rare metal is gathered. "They want to ensure that they reduce the environmental impact of mining and production to the extent possible as well as any human rights issues," Abraham told Gizmodo. "They want to make their iPhones and whatever else is cooking in their labs and want to ensure they don't end up on the cover of the Economist finding their purchases fuelled a war in the Congo."

The supply chains for companies such as Apple and Samsung have come under increasing scrutiny in the last few years. These companies - and indeed most electronic manufacturers - rely on supply chains that, while ostensibly ethical, are frequently found to not be. There's the obvious example of Apple's relationship with Foxconn, who has been revealed to employ underage workers and house employees in grotesque conditions. But there are the less visible but just as awful accounts of underage children operating in cobalt mines, lithium mining making companies rich while the locals descend into squalor, and entire cities in China turned silver and grey by graphite production. Cobalt, lithium and graphite are all substances vital to the lithium ion batteries currently fuelling the latest solution to climate change.

Abraham notes that this trend of companies going directly to the source for their necessary components is likely to continue. "Companies are more fearful the market wont supply what's needed," he told Gizmodo. Which means we could start seeing more and more Apple mines and Samsung processing plants in the near future. That's a bummer if you're wary of companies becoming to large and encompassing, but if these companies really can reduce the number of human rights violations occurring in these mines, then it isn't all bleak dystopian future.


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