Against Blood Commodities: A Proposal for a Consumption Boycott

Earlier this year a group named Falling Whistles spent a few days couch-surfing at my house. Their project is simple: raise awareness about the conflict in the Congo, and the role of blood-commodities such as Coltan in it.  (Alight fine, to be technical the term “blood commodity” doesn’t exist, but I think it’s clear what it means, as it derives from the common term blood diamond and the notion of a commodity).

They are called “falling whistles” because of the high proportion of child soldiers in the congolese conflict – and the smallest children, too young to bear a rifle, go into battle with whistles to scare the enemy and to act as human shields.

To raise awareness, they sell expensive whistles at high end retail stores by setting up mini “museums” which display information and loop videos about their project. All the proceeds go to programs rehabilitating child soldiers in the region.

You can buy a whistle if you want. I did. I wear it, mostly. Hardly anyone ever asks about it, but if they do, I get to go on a rant about how I want ethically sourced Coltan. But, seriously, there is no certification for conflict-free electronics, and it is probably not feasible that we could continue current electronics production and while switching over to conflict-free sourcing. But, there is an alternative.

We could boycott consumer electronics. We could say – “no more cell phones”, and we could go back to writing things on paper in quill pens. We could do that, but as wonderfully steam punk as it would be, it’s not realistic. But, we could do something else – we could boycott new consumer electronics. What would that mean? Well, it’s pretty simple – it would mean rather than getting a new cell phone ever 3 years (“oh, but it comes free with my contract!”), you could just keep using your old one. And, when that one breaks, you could try craigslist instead of the apple store to find a replacement. And the same for computers. And this would hardly be a hardship – since computers (and digital cameras, incidentally), are already basically as good as they are going to get. Sure, there will continue to be incremental improvements, but no new product really does anything that you couldn’t do on an 11 year old clamshell or brick phone from 1995. Ok fine, you can post from your blog on your iphone – but you certainly don’t need to buy one of those new either.

The benefits of boycotting new products are obvious: you can continue to use awesome stuff, you can destroy capitalism, and you can reduce the demand for blood commodities which fuel atrocious conflicts. Even better – you can continue to use wonderful Apple products while you pressure them to adopt conflict-free materials sourcing.

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25 thoughts on “Against Blood Commodities: A Proposal for a Consumption Boycott

  1. MANY of the rebel groups still fighting across swathes of the Democratic Republic of Congo get their cash from rocks. Apart from gold, they illicitly sell cassiterite (used in laptops), coltan (mobile phones) and wolframite (light bulbs). Hundreds of the mines containing such treasures, especially in the country’s troubled east, where conflict has long been fiercest, are targets in turf warfare. Reducing the illicit trade will not bring peace, but it may help.

    New legislation passed by America’s Congress is intended to curb the black market and boost the legal one. Companies that report to the American Securities and Exchange Commission now have to reveal whether they buy minerals from Congo or from any of its nine neighbours and, if so, from where. New regulations likely to be proposed by the State Department next year may follow guidelines being drafted by the UN and the OECD, a rich-country club, that will advise companies on how best to trace the origin of their materials.

    The entire trade in Congolese minerals needs cleaning up. As much as 80% of them may be smuggled out. The export of illicit gold alone is reckoned to be worth $1.2 billion a year, almost none of it accruing to Congo’s treasury; the Congolese army and the former rebels who have been accommodated within it still levy their own informal taxes. Many international companies that get their supplies from Congo directly or indirectly pay the army or rogue soldiers for them. Unable to guarantee that the minerals they acquire are untainted by conflict, some have stopped buying from Congo altogether. Others buy goods in neighbouring countries where traders have smuggled them in from Congo and have arranged dodgy paperwork to make the deals look legal. But checking the origin of most minerals on sale in Goma or Bukavu, big border towns in eastern Congo, is virtually impossible.

  2. Some smelters, mostly based in Asia, as well as manufacturers such as Apple and Nokia, are sponsoring a pilot scheme to trace the ore coming out of two particular mines to prove they can regulate the trade. Each sack of ore is tagged with a label and has attached paperwork that can be checked at every transit point on its way from the mine to the end-user, though the scheme will need independent oversight to work.

  3. Another meaningful initiative would be to push for better recycling of electronics. We probably throw away a lot of tantalum that could otherwise be incorporated into new products.

    Firms should be encouraged to make their products easy to recycle. Another promising approach is to obligate them to take back and recycle their own products, once they have reached the end of their lives.

  4. This is a good idea. It would also be good to include the cost of recycling and disposal of products in their original sale price. Not doing this amounts to a subsidy.

  5. It would be good for such take-back programs to adopt a deposit structure, ideally one which would fund a sustainability fund. For instance, laptop batteries could require a mandatory 25$ deposit which could go into an investment fund – the interest on which would be used to fund cleanup programs, etc… And then, when your computer is done, you could return the battery for the deposit.

    Also, there could perhaps be structures put in place to encourage firms to make their products more easily recyclable. I’m not sure how this would work, but as we move into a world where batteries become more and more important, it seems important that we learn how to make them in ways which facilitates their recycling into new batteries.

  6. I think the easiest way to encourage firms to make their products recyclable is simply to obligate them to do the recycling (or contract it out at their own expense).

    An alternative would be a ‘feebate’ system, in which an additional tax would be levied on things that are hard to recycle and the revenues are used to reduce the consumer price of things that are easy to recycle.

    The big benefit of the first approach is lower administrative costs, since nobody actually has to evaluate how recyclable products are.

  7. There are probably some things that currently contain valuable materials but are rather tough to recycle. Governments could also fund research into making those things in ways that allow the materials to be salvaged more easily later. They could do so directly with grants, or by offering prizes for significant innovations.

    Regarding Coltan, apparently most of it comes from Australia. Do you think it makes sense to simply refuse to buy the small portion of the global total that comes from Congo? It’s an open question whether that would improve anything, particularly since Chinese companies are perfectly happy to buy up any resources rejected by western countries on ethical grounds.

  8. ” It’s an open question whether that would improve anything, particularly since Chinese companies are perfectly happy to buy up any resources rejected by western countries on ethical grounds.”

    Is a significant amount of the Coltan processed in China used domestically? I would find it strange if any state other than China was a major purchaser of Coltan, considering the dominance of Chinese manufacturing.

    Isn’t the production of high-tech products in China is largely under the heel of western firms – which sell to western consumers?

    It seems to me that a boycott of high tech electronics is already a consumer move against China’s procurement of blood-commodities.

  9. I know you don’t believe in rights, but the way someone else might ask this question is – can I assert the right to purchase a product when I know that a portion of my funds are being directed to find conflicts where child soldiers are falling? Can I contribute freely, when I have alternatives, to this cause?

  10. So would you support global sanctions against coltan from Congo?

    According to Wikipedia: “The United States Geological Survey reports in its 2006 yearbook that this region produced a little less than 1% of the world’s tantalum output for the past four years, peaking at 10% in 2000 and 2008.”

  11. Procuring minerals from rebel groups which use the funds to enslave child soldiers and commit atrocities is already a crime – the crime of financially supporting terrorism. We should simply hold firms to standards that already exist.

    Insofar as you think China is the wild-west of mineral aquisition – the US government has no obligation to allow firms that financially support terrorism to sell their wares in the United States.

  12. “So would you support global sanctions against coltan from Congo?”

    Yes – although coltan is not the only conflict-mineral in the region.

  13. How does that differ ethically from the sanctions against Cuba? The Cuban government commits human rights violations and violates international law. Furthermore, they are supported financially by tourism and other exports.

  14. Ok – maybe it is not as simple as “supporting global sanctions” against Coltan from “the Congo”. The congo is not a country like Cuba – it is a region under control of different factions.

    The issues in the region are extremely complex, deeply related to a colonial history, and I’m not going to pretend to understand them well enough to give a short gloss of “what we should do”. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t easy to say a few things about what we shouldn’t do – pay terrorists for minerals.

    It’s not obvious how the comparison to Cuba clarifies anything.

  15. It appears the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments oppose the blockade – in fact every US client states save Israel voted against the blockade.

    “U.N. resolution again condemns U.S. embargo on Cuba

    BY JUAN O. TAMAYO

    JTAMAYO@ELNUEVOHERALD.COM

    The United Nations’ General Assembly on Wednesday approved a resolution condemning the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, for the 19th straight year and again by an overwhelming majority.
    The resolution was endorsed by 187 of the U.N.’s 192 member nations. The United States and Israel voted against it, and the tiny nations of Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia abstained.
    It urges Washington to end its nearly half-century-old embargo on the communist-ruled island — Cuba calls it a “blockade” — but U.S. governments have paid no heed to the previous 18 votes.
    Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, speaking before the vote, criticized President Barack Obama for maintaining the embargo despite his preelection promise of a “fresh start” in bilateral relations.
    “It is clear that the United States has no intention whatsoever to eliminate the blockade,” he said. “The U.S. policy against Cuba has no ethical or legal basis, no credibility or support.”
    In reply, Ronald D. Godard, a senior official with the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said his country had the sovereign right to decide its commercial policies toward any country.”

    http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/10/27/1893678/un-resolution-again-condemns-us.html#ixzz14SE79iw4

  16. The Cuban example shows some of the risks of boycotts.

    They can strengthen the group you are trying to weaken, partly by bolstering their claims about persecution and imperialism.

    They also cause economic harm to people other than those who are your targets.

    Whether the costs exceed the benefits is a case-by-case matter.

  17. What are the relevant similarities between the Congo and the use of blood-commodities by rebel groups to pursue an armed campaign against the government, and the US quarantine of Cuba?

    I can’t see any similarities at all.

    A boycott of conflict-minerals would not isolate the Congo from the rest of the world. It would rather increase the price of extracting coltan because for it to be sold, there would need to be an internationally recognized paper train proving that it had been extracted legitimately by the legal holder of the land. I mean – I suppose this might have some tiny negative economic effect, but the economic effect of attaining stability in the region would probably be hundreds or thousands of times more significant.

  18. “They can strengthen the group you are trying to weaken, partly by bolstering their claims about persecution and imperialism.”

    Are you implying that the US boycott of Cuba has “strengthened” Cuba? I think that’s false, and if so, could actually be interpreted as quite cruel. Certainly if Cubans are significantly worse off due to their inability to trade with their obvious trading partner, such a statement is not terribly considerate of those people.

  19. http://storyofelectronics.org/ — The Story of Electronics, released on November 9th, 2010 takes on the electronics industry’s “design for the dump” mentality and champions product take back to spur companies to make less toxic, more easily recyclable and longer lasting products.

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