The Ugly Truth About the Materials in Your Cellphone

Conflict Minerals: The Ugly Truth About the Materials in Your Cellphone
Conflict Minerals: The Ugly Truth About the Materials in Your Cellphone

We've come a long way from landlines; not only are cellphones ubiquitous, but smartphones have basically put hand-held computers in our pockets. Sadly, though, our must-have mobile devices include a built-in, terrible component: human suffering.

Welcome to the ugly world of "conflict minerals."

Tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are used in the manufacture of major electronic products, including mobile phones. Mining these minerals is common practice in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but sadly, Congolese miners (including children) regularly face far worse fates than hazardous working conditions and low pay.

The Violent Business of Mining

Many of the Congolese mines are controlled by military forces, which get the lion's share of the proceeds from this lucrative but dangerous business. Many Congolese workers are forced to extract the highly sought minerals from the mines through violence and rape. Furthermore, there are few other options for Congolese citizens to make a living in the first place.

Individuals and organizations are increasingly raising awareness of the fact that conflict minerals are an ugly ingredient in many of the most popular electronic devices, including cellphones.

Actress and activist Robin Wright recently recorded what she saw in Eastern Congo for CNN. She traveled there with the Enough Project, which seeks to end genocide and crimes against humanity. There's also a documentary, Blood in the Mobile, which documents the visual proof of the human toll on Congolese miners.

Are You Using Dirty Devices?

The Enough Project's Raise Hope for Congo campaign site has a handy heat map of major electronics providers' conflict footprints, through which consumers can make conflict-free decisions (or know which companies to contact to demand progress in creating conflict-free supply chains).

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Motorola (MMI) and Nokia (NOK) have a "green" ranking, indicating that they are "on the right track," having taken steps to trace, audit, and certify their supply chains.

Faith-based socially responsible investment fund Praxis Mutual Funds has also started raising awareness of the issue through a campaign it launched this week. It set up a form that enables consumers to contact their cellphone providers such as AT&T (T), Sprint Nextel (S), T-Mobile (DT), and Verizon (VZ) to demand conflict-free cellphone options.

Consumer awareness -- voting with one's dollars -- can do a heck of a lot to push for change at how major companies do business. As more consumers call for conflict-free phones and other devices, these corporations will get the message.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.