Why Don't We Have A Human Rights Certification for Electronics?


Despite the high-profile treatment it's received recently, little has been done to address the fact that the money paid for minerals used in everyday gadgets sometimes supports foreign wars and atrocities. Some industries have dealt with public and government pressure to stamp out abuses in their supply chain -- diamonds have the UN-recognized Kimberley process, coffee has the fair trade label -- but electronics makers lag behind.

Nicholas Kristoff helped bring "blood phones" into the national discourse in a column a few weeks ago and now an amendment to the financial reform bill would require electronics companies to file annual disclosures of what's in their products and where some of those materials come from. A jewelry trade association is fighting the measure arguing that materials are "too hard to trace."

But even if the amendment passes, governments and other organizations may not be suited to enforce fair practices in the supply chain. Diamond industry author Tom Zoellner says the UN-backed Kimberley Process is "more like a low brick wall than a prison fence" and can be circumvented by smuggling diamonds across borders. Harvard Berkman Center fellow Ethan Zuckerman paraphrases Fair Labor Association's Auret Van Heerden's recent TED talk, arguing that "governments can't regulate their own supply chains, and they have even less ability to monitor these changes on an international level."

So what to do? Van Heerden apparently thinks only corporations are suited to address these problems and he encourages them to jump on board, making regular audits of their supply chain publicly available for the public to examine. And it's not as daunting as it may seem, Zuckerman reports:

This seems overwhelming for the corporations who participate - too daunting or dangerous to take on. But four thousands companies have taken this on, especially the sporting goods industry. The role models are there.

But it would be great for consumers and companies alike if there were an easy way for those four thousand businesses to be identified. That's the problem. There's no simple badge of honor to congratulate the good companies and, by omission, chastise the bad ones.

In November, 60 Minutes explored blood minerals in the following 13-minute segment:

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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