Intel unveils conflict-free processors: will the industry follow suit?
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcased 110-inch curved TV sets, watches that monitor your vital signs, self-driving cars … and the technology industry's efforts to curb violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Those efforts are being led by Intel, the giant (annual revenues of $52bn) maker of microprocessors for computer, tablets and mobile phones, among other things, and its new CEO, Brian Krzanich.
Near the end of a high-profile keynote address in which he demonstrated "smart earbuds", 3D printing, advances in video gaming and an embedded processor designed to enable "wearable computing", Krzanich paused and said:
"Okay. I'm going to switch gears for a minute now. … This is not an issue we would normally talk about at CES, but it is an issue that is very important and personal to me. That issue is conflict minerals."
After he showed a somber video about the devastation in the Congo, where more than 5 million people have died since 1994 – many killed by armed groups using profits from the mining of four minerals, tantulum, tungsten, tin and gold – Krzanich promised that every Intel microprocessor will henceforth be conflict-free. The world's first conflict-free processors will be validated as not containing minerals sourced from mines that finance fighting in the Congo, he said.
But not all businesses have joined the unorthodox anti-war campaign. While Intel and its NGO partner in the Congo, the Enough Project, http://www.enoughproject.org/ were marking what the activists called a "huge breakthrough to defund the warlords", several powerful business alliances – the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers – were asking a panel of federal judges to overturn a provision the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that requires companies to disclose their use of minerals from Africa.
Those alliances argue that requiring companies to report any source minerals from the Congo amounts to an abuse of government power. (To further complicate the issue, Intel also is a member of all three groups challenging the Dodd-Frank provision.)
In the Congo, should businesses stay or go?
As we've reported before at Guardian Sustainable Business, the conflict-free minerals issue is a thorny one for big business. A relatively straightforward option for corporations would be to avoid the Congo entirely – there are ample sources of the minerals elsewhere – but that would set back the economy of this desperately poor nation. The challenge for NGOs and companies that want to do the right thing for the DRC is to find ways to do business with the region without supporting rebel groups.
Electronics industry leaders such as Intel and HP are working both on their own and with coalitions such as the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), which want to move the DRC from a wartime to a peacetime economy, to do just that.
It's a daunting task. Supply chains lack transparency. It's hard to verify that minerals shipped out of the region are conflict-free. Meanwhile, others who use the minerals, including the jewelry, aviation and automotive industries, have mostly remained on the sidelines.
"The solution isn't easy," Krzanich said, "but nothing worthwhile ever is."
Of the four minerals, tantalum is the one on which the electronics industry can have the greatest impact, so that has been the industry's top focus. The process of untangling supply chains for precious metals has been painstaking, as I learned in Las Vegas, where I moderated a panel with Krzanich, Sasha Lezhnev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright, who has visited the Congo. (Full disclosure: Intel paid me to moderate the panel.)
How companies rank on conflict minerals
Krzanich, who became Intel's CEO last May, previously ran the company's manufacturing and supply chain operations, so he was well placed to manage the issue. Unlike, say, Apple or Dell, which outsource most or all of their manufacturing, Intel makes its own silicon chips and takes pride in the environmental excellence of its "fabs" in the US and elsewhere.
When Krzanich first learned about conflict minerals, he knew that he didn't want Intel engulfed in a controversy that had the potential to undo decades of good work around clean manufacturing and corporate responsibility. "I want to be loved," he joked. "We had to get ahead of the issue."
By contrast, Apple initially ignored overtures from the Enough Project, Lezhnev said. When the group couldn't get a meeting with Apple, college students protested at the opening of a new store in the tony Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC in 2010. Not long after, a phone rang in Enough's DC office: Steve Jobs was on the line, asking what the fuss was about.
Using a tactic known as "rank 'em and spank 'em," Enough since then has rated tech companies on their conflict-minerals policies. Intel and HP lead the rankings, with Apple, Dell and Microsoft not far behind. Laggards include Nintendo, KTC and Sharp.
Helter smelter: consensus needed to quell the flow
More than 90 companies are now involved in the efforts to stop financing the violence in the Congo, according to Tim Mohin, who is chair of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition. A key pinch point in supply chains turns out to be the smelters where metals are processed, so the EICC now maintains a list of conflict-free smelters.
The EICC's work will continue, notwithstanding the court challenge to the Dodd-Frank reporting requirement around conflict minerals. "The big electronics companies are clearly worried about corporate reputation and brand," Mohin says. But other businesses are driven by compliance, and they might not make the effort if the law goes away.
Without broad co-operation across industries, Mohin notes, the effort to cut off funds to the renegade mines will be in vain. As one industry executive has said: "If you build a dam halfway across the river, you don't stop the flow." Then again, the news from Intel should silence those who argued that it's impossible to make electronics that are conflict free.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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