Steve Jobs Stumbles Into the Congo Conflict Minerals Debate

Nick Kristof’s column in the Sunday New York Times described how certain metals used in common electronic equipment like iPods and cell phones are fueling conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It created quite the stir — and apparently after reading the item an Apple customer fired off an email to CEO Steve Jobs.  Jobs, who is known to answer customer emails, had the following exchange with his customer (via Wired):

Hi Steve,

I’d planned to buy a new iPhone tomorrow – my first upgrade since buying the very first version on the first day of its release – but I’m hesitant without knowing Apple’s position on sourcing the minerals in its products.

Are you currently making any effort to source conflict-free minerals? In particular, I’m concerned that Apple is getting tantalum, tungsten, tin, and gold from Eastern Congo through its suppliers.

Looking forward to your response,

Jobs’ reply:

Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict [free] materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem. [emphasis mine]

That response strikes me as off base.  The Enough Project, which has produced extensive research on Congo’s conflict minerals over the past few years, apparently agrees.  Here is an email that the Enough Project just sent over to Steve Jobs:

Thanks, Steve. You have always blazed a path where others thought it impossible.

Tracing minerals isn’t easy, but it can be done. The chokepoint is at the smelter, where the raw mineral ores are processed into metals. Tin and tantalum firms that supply electronics companies have started tracing programs in the past six months, and certain electronics companies are beginning to audit this process.

But to guarantee to consumers that iPads, iPods and iPhones are verifiably conflict-free, we need more resources and commitment from industry leaders like you. We have a roadmap to accomplish this, through tracing, auditing, and certification. Would you like to meet and talk further?

The chorus on Congo’s conflict minerals is only growing louder. And in case Jobs is not aware, the Enough Project includes many of same activists who helped to make the Darfur crisis so visible here in the United States. They’ve now set their sites on the Congo’s conflict minerals, which makes me think this issue is not going away quietly.  The wise thing for Jobs to do is take the Enough Project up on their offer and turn Apple into an industry leader on this issue. 

Post Script: If you are interested in learning more about how metals that are used in small electronic devices fuel conflict in the DRC, the Enough Project’s David Sullivan and I devoted an entire blogginheads conversation to the topic last year: