A pilot scheme to trace the world’s first “ethical cobalt” from small-scale mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo all the way to consumers of electric cars and iPhones will start this week, potentially allowing companies such as Apple to assure customers their products are free from child labour and other human rights abuses.
The trial, which parallels previous efforts to weed out so-called blood diamonds and conflict minerals, comes in response to concern that increased demand for cobalt is fuelling exploitation and environmental degradation in the central African country, which accounts for 60 per cent of world supply.
The Better Cobalt pilot, which will be overseen by RCS Global, a UK supply-chain audit company, will electronically tag cobalt from five artisanal and semi-mechanised mines in Congo in what it says will be the first systematic attempt to trace the metal along an opaque supply chain.
The project is a collaboration between several as-yet-unnamed “global brand” consumer companies, including two car manufacturers, as well as industry participants, including Huayou Cobalt, the world’s largest refiner, whose Congo DongFang Mining supplies Apple, among others.
DongFang’s admission in 2016 that it did not have strong control over its supply chain has prompted calls from advocacy groups and electronics companies to tighten oversight.
At least a fifth of the cobalt exported from Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries, comes from artisanal mines, where child labour is common.
Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of Rights and Accountability in Development, a UK charity, said that demand for cobalt had turned parts of the country into “an environmental disaster”. Working conditions were brutal and miners’ lives too often short, she said. Toxic chemicals used to extract cobalt were sometimes discarded directly into rivers, poisoning the water supply.
Electric cars, which are being bought in the west as part of a green lifestyle, contain about 10 kilogrammes of cobalt, more than 1,000 times the amount used in an iPhone, according to BMO Capital Markets. Some analysts say that a pledge by Tesla’s Elon Musk to source all cobalt from North America is unrealistic given the expected ramp-up in electric car production.
Cobalt prices have more than doubled in the past year alone as battery makers scramble to lock in supplies.
Nicholas Garrett, chief executive of RCS Global, said that agents stationed at mines would report suspected violations as stipulated by the OECD.
Red-flag incidents, such as child labour or a mine cave-in, would be instantly visible on a dashboard available to participants along the supply chain, including the final cobalt purchaser.
“This level of data generation is unheard of in the artisanal mining context,” Mr Garrett said. “We are essentially creating a digital footprint.” Eventually, the aim was to improve monitoring further with block-chain technology, he said.
Ms Van Woudenberg gave a cautious welcome to the scheme, saying it was “absolutely vital that there are good, strong initiatives that can help push the actors violating human rights to clean up their supply chains”.
However, she warned that too many monitoring programmes were “nothing more than fluff”, which helped offending companies whitewash their image.
Impact, a Canadian advocacy group, recently left the Kimberley Process, a group committed to removing conflict diamonds from the global supply chain, saying that it provided buyers with a “false confidence” that their gems were conflict free.
Get alerts on Cobalt when a new story is published