Justice and Cell Phones

July 27, 2015

If living justly is a work in progress, here is a good example of the “in progress” part for me as we come to the end of July’s ethical shopping challenge.

I really like my iPhone. To an embarrassing extent. A key reason is that I have no sense of direction, and before cell phone navigation became a real thing I was frequently lost on my way to meetings, events, what-have-you. It was constant, and frustrating, and my quality of life is significantly higher with a map at my fingertips. Apart from that huge benefit, I enjoy the way my phone looks and feels. I appreciate the availability of cool apps. I read on it, pay bills with it, watch TV on it, communicate using it. As I type these words, I feel a stomach twinge. It contradicts the life goals I’m trying to achieve to depend on a physical object this much. Especially one that symbolizes elitism as much as the iPhone does.

But I had a more serious jolt when I first started thinking about changing my habits of consumption and my thoughts strayed to my phone. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew there was a problem of injustice related to cell phone materials. I had read about it briefly, felt horrified and frustrated by it, and filed it away as “unfortunate-but-what-can-you-do-because-we-all-need-this-technology.” Focusing on buying justly brought it back to my mind.

The gist is that there is this mineral–coltan–that when refined into tantalum becomes a key component of the circuit boards in many of our electronics, including laptops and cell phones. Given the tremendous use of these devices in the Global North, the demand for coltan is high. Now bring in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The devastatingly poor but resource-rich African country is a large (but not the largest) supplier of coltan, and initially the relatively equal access to mining the mineral brought a much-needed flow of cash into a flailing economy, which trickled down to some of the poorest.

At the same time, however, the Congo has been embroiled in conflict for decades. The violence has resulted in millions of lives lost, horrific mass sexual assaults used as a tool of war resulting in crippling disabilities, and countless refugees in different parts of Africa and around the world. Boston has a sizable Congolese population, and several families from the DRC attend my church. They rarely mention the trauma they have experienced. I wonder if we could fathom it if they did.

Resource mining in the DRC had been discussed for its questionable labor practices (including child labor) and its severe environmental toll, but in 2001, a report to the UN Security Council suggested that the demand for coltan was also fueling Congo’s civil war as violent armed militias controlled and profited from mining operations in certain locations. This report and further media coverage led to campaigns for embargoes on Central African coltan. The truth is that the conflict in the DRC is exceedingly complex and likely has a wide variety of contributing factors, and several books and reports have explored the validity of this link with different conclusions. (The above paragraphs are a summary – you can read more about coltan and the civil war in the Congo here, here, here, here and here, to start. You can also watch documentaries on it here and here.)

I’m admittedly late to the table on this one, since the discussion on coltan and cell phones has been around for more than a decade, but it appears that it is still almost impossible to find out whether the coltan in our electronics is sourced from the Congo or from another supplying country such as Australia. Though a UN Peacekeeping force of 21,000 troops has tried to help stabilize the DRC’s political situation, it remains to be seen whether the country will be able to extricate itself from the ongoing violence. So, since I hopefully have a lot of time before I need to replace my current phone, I’m turning some of these things over in my mind, trying to view the situation from different perspectives. What would happen if the demand for coltan decreased as people made different choices in purchasing electronics? While rebel militias definitely benefit from mining the mineral, so do poor people with little access to other forms of income. Reduced demand would lower the price of the mineral and ruin livelihoods, eliminate much-needed jobs. I see that point. In the end, though, there are severe governance issues that result in armed groups pocketing the majority of the wealth and allow for child labor and inhumane working conditions. I don’t want to support these practices. It’s a tough call.

And until recently, there were few options apart from ditching the cell phone altogether to avoid participating in the demand for “blood minerals.” Enter the Fairphone. A group in the Netherlands has constructed and sold 60,000 of these little beauties, using (by their own proclamation) conflict-free materials, fairly-paid labor, and open-source software. The phone runs on an open-source Android platform (which breaks my Mac-loving heart) and is apparently made with longevity and not planned obsolescence in mind. I need to do a bit more due diligence on this company, though, as their tantalum comes from DRC mines that are supposedly conflict free (is that possible?). The newest iteration of the phone, Fairphone 2, isn’t cheap at about $575 (525 Euros) and won’t be sold outside of Europe until 2016, but perhaps by the time I need another phone the company will have made arrangements with a wireless carrier in the U.S.

The other option, one that I’ve used more and more often with a variety of products, is to buy used. Apple (a company that has a B+ grade according to the Better World Shopping Guide) offers refurbished iPhones at a significantly lower price if you bring in a broken one, as I learned from experience. So it may be possible to use mine until it breaks and then purchase a refurbished one, or seek out another used phone.

These things are complicated, and take research. They aren’t clear cut, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether your actions will help or hinder. But I don’t want to leave my call to live justly at the door when I need to make a calculated purchase, because it the issues are murky. I plan to keep reading and thinking about the best choices I have when it comes to cell phones, while using mine until it no longer works rather buying the latest version.

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