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Conflict-Free Materials: What They Are and Why They Are Important

The sky is clear, the sun is hot.  The thermometer in the shade of the foreman’s tent reads 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Mamadou, a local Congolese laborer swings his makeshift pick ax at a large stone trying to dislodge a ribbon of Tin trapped inside.  

He has been at it all morning.  His bare skin is dark brown from his exposure to the direct sun and heat.  Blistered and broken, his complexion resembles that of a fifty-year old farmer who has been working the fields all his life.  Mamadou is fourteen years old.  His mother and father died years ago in the tin mines, now he works to extract this valuable material under the watchful eyes of rebel soldiers armed with AK-47s and ordered to shoot to kill if anyone tries to make a run for it.

While Mamadou is a made up character, the circumstances I describe are very real.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is blessed (or cursed) with vast deposits of mineral resources.  A recent geological survey found that DRC has over $23 trillion in untapped mineral resources.  These mineral mines are mostly run by the DRC army or armed rebel groups that use the income from trading in these minerals to fund wars and their campaigns of terror against local villages.  Conflicts in the Congo and boarding states are the deadliest since World War II and this region has the highest rates of sexual assault on women in the world.

Why should we care?  What do minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have to do with me?  A great deal, as it turns out.  Every consumer electronic device produced, including computers, monitors, gaming systems, and cell phones use four key minerals essential to their function: Tantalum, Tungsten, Tin, and Gold, also known as the “3TG” minerals, and for the purposes of our discussion, Conflict Minerals.  Tantalum is used to store power in devises.  Tungsten makes cell phones vibrate.  Tin is the key ingredient in electronic solder.  Gold is used to coat wires.  The problem is much of these minerals are mined in the Congo by slave labor, whose proceeds are used to perpetuate deadly conflict and terrorize local communities.

Nations of the world now recognize the need to stem the consumption of conflict minerals, only sourcing 3TG’s from certified conflict free mines.  The United States, in 2010, as part of the far reaching financial reform bill Dodd-Frank 1502, made it illegal for manufactures to knowingly source 3TG minerals from conflict zones, specifically the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The law requires all publicly traded companies listed on any American stock exchange to certify their 3TG supply chain is free of conflict minerals, all the way back to the smelter.  This requires manufacturers and users of 3TG minerals to survey their suppliers and certify their products do not contain 3TGs sourced from conflict zones.

A global not-for-profit organization called the Responsible Minerals Initiative standardized and manages the certification and reporting process used by users and suppliers of 3TG minerals.  Their mission is to provide companies with tools and resources to make sourcing decisions that improve regulatory compliance and support responsible sourcing from conflict-affected and high-risk areas.  They achieve this goal through many activities including standardizing the reporting process used worldwide by companies including Field Fastener to certify products are free from 3TG minerals sourced in conflict zones.

One 3TG mineral of particular interest to Field Fastener, Tin.  Some fasteners are tin plated and other items are made from bronze, a copper alloy similar to brass that contains 12% tin.  If asked by a customer to certify our products do not contain 3TGs sourced from conflict regions, Field reviews the product list and requests 3TG conflict free certifications from our suppliers of tin plating and bronze components.  Once received, Field will complete our certification to our customer.  Conflict free certificates require annual renewal.

We have a legal and ethical obligation to ensure our supply chain is free of 3TG minerals sourced from conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Field Fastener takes this responsibility seriously only sourcing products certified conflict zone free.  If we are all vigilant we can save a life like Mamadou from forced labor under armed guard and perhaps someday give him hope of a better life.