Have you ever wondered why cobalt is an important word [and element] in our day-to-day lives? Cobalt just happens to be a crucial component in the production of rechargeable batteries used in all electronic devices in the world. This includes your personal smartphones/laptop/Ipad, the hand blender, the portable light, and any other device you regularly recharge and reuse. . This very essential mineral to modern, western life has come under increased scrutiny in recent years due to horrific working conditions within the cobalt mines, the harm it causes human health, and the lack of accountability from those who profit from the harm.
This article will explore the impact of cobalt mining on our fellow humans and the responsibilities that tech companies have to minimize the risks associated with the collection of this material that the western world relies on.
The Human Cost of Cobalt Mining
Cobalt is mined primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which produces over 70% of the world's cobalt. Despite the economic benefits that cobalt mining brings to the region, the industry is associated with serious human rights abuses, including child labor, hazardous working conditions, inhumane pay, and exposure to toxic chemicals. This dismal practice is only more upsetting when you remember the region's brutal history of Western imperialism. These mines are the modern iteration of those practices and the 21st century enslavement. Why is this being done to the people of the DRC? To line white, male tech leaders pockets and to progress technology in the developed western world.
Many cobalt mines in the DRC are operated by small-scale, informal miners who use primitive tools and work long hours in extremely unsafe conditions. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are up to 40,000 children working in cobalt mines in the DRC, and many of them work in dangerous, cramped conditions for little or no pay to continue the current domination system and hierarchy of people within our world.
Even worse, the mining process exposes workers to toxic chemicals, such as cobalt dust and fumes, which causes lung damage and other life-long health problems for the children and impoverished workers. So it should be no surprise that not a soul is provided PPE or protection from coming in contact with the dust that causes birth defects in the pregnant women working there. As we always learn when uncovering systems that perpetuateharm to humans, this system of mining and waste is allowed to contaminate the nearby water sources, leading to serious environmental health risks for all living beings.
Tech Companies and Cobalt
Given the widespread use of cobalt in the mass production of rechargeable electronic devices, tech companies and their $5.2 trillion of profit have a ethical responsibility to at a minimum, ensure that the cobalt used in their products is sourced responsibly,that the workers who mine it are treated and paid fairly, and that they work in safe conditions.
Ironically, while cobalt fuels the progression of western society, the DRC cobalt miners do not have electricity, access to clean water or sewer systems. At each end of the technology chain of commerce we find harm, disempowerment and lack of care for black and brown bodies - from within its offices and work culture, to its practices of manufacturing.
In recent years, some companies have taken steps to address the risks associated with cobalt mining. Like in 2017, Apple announced that it would stop sourcing cobalt from artisanal mines and would only purchase cobalt from sources that meet its environmental and social standards. Other companies, such as Tesla and Samsung, have also committed to responsible sourcing practices for cobalt.
However, these efforts are criticized as performative and insufficient, as many of the world's largest tech companies continue to rely on cobalt sourced from mines that employ child labor and other human rights abuses. In addition, the complex supply chains involved in the production of electronic devices make it difficult for companies to track the source of the cobalt used in their products. It is long overdue for tech companies across the world to improve and iterate this unsuccessful attempt at injecting ethical business practices into a practice of systemic domination.
Recommendations for Tech Companies
To minimize the risks associated with cobalt mining, tech companies should take the following actions:
Address the (lack of) Ethics in Tech: The broad discussion of technology ethics is key here as new technology arises and new choices, with it. The many atrocities associated with cobalt mining are another of these key social and ethical questions that the industry must address in recognition of its continued practices of exclusion, oppression and harm towards disempowered, black and brown communities.
Assume On-the-Ground Responsibility: As western corporations do with any overseas manufacturing outfit, tech companies must assume the responsibility of ending slave labor within their supply chain by having employees on the ground. The daily experience of miners and the use of child labor cannot be addressed in a contract, with a check-list or over a Zoom call.
Ethically Source Cobalt: Tech companies engineer a system to ensure that cobalt used in their products is humanely while abolishing the employment of child labor and all other human rights abuses. They must prioritize the purchase of cobalt from sources that meet high environmental and social standards.
Prioritize Transparency and Accountability: Tech companies need to assume all that comes from changing society through transparency and accountability. As they openly share information about their supply chains, they will work to increase trust while giving consumers more information about their social footprint and the products they consume. This could involve working with independent auditors to verify that cobalt is sourced responsibly.
Provide a Living Wage: To disrupt the longitudinal social and environmental harm, Tech companies must immediately provide the cobalt mining communities a living wage, or the income level that allows each individual or family to afford adequate shelter, food, and other necessities of a reasonable life.
Invest in Community Development: Tech companies have a social responsibility to invest in the local communities in cobalt mining regions and to support the healthy life of the individuals. Financing projects that improve living conditions, like education, skill development, and other training opportunities
Invest in Alternative Technologies: While cobalt is an essential component in rechargeable batteries, tech companies should invest in alternative technologies that reduce the reliance on cobalt and other rare earth minerals. This could involve developing more efficient battery designs, investing in research into new materials, and exploring the use of recycling and reuse to reduce the demand for new cobalt.
Collaborate with Other Stakeholders: Finally, tech companies should collaborate with other stakeholders to address the issue of cobalt toxicity. This includes working with human rights organizations, environmental groups, governments, and other companies in the industry to promote responsible sourcing, share best practices, and establish a unified approach to reducing the risks associated with cobalt, ensure that marginalized communities are not further exploited in the process of producing technology and working to ensure that workers in the supply chain are paid a fair living wage and have access to healthcare and other basic needs.
Cobalt is a crucial component in modern technology, but its mining practices and use come at a significant human cost. Tech companies have an ethical and historical responsibility to ensure that the minings communities are safe and by systematically addressing the issue of cobalt toxicity, child labor, and other fatal working conditions. Tech companies play the most critical role in mitigating the risks associated with cobalt mining and processing by taking concrete actions to promote responsible sourcing, transparency, and accountability. By prioritizing ethical practices and working collaboratively with other stakeholders, tech companies can assume their full social responsibility and innovatively create a more sustainable and equitable future for all.
Kara, S. (2023). Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. St. Martin’s Press.
Natasha, T. (2022). Democratic Republic Of Congo: A Brutal History of Conflict. https://pasa.org/awareness/drc1/
Amanda, M. (2021). Understanding cobalt’s human cost: Social consequences of green energy must be assessed in addition to environmental impacts, researchers say. https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2021/12/understanding-cobalts-human-cost/
Mark, M. (2023). ‘Cobalt Red’ Review: The Human Price of Cobalt https://www.wsj.com/articles/cobalt-red-review-the-human-price-of-cobalt-11675293373
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