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Unethically Mined Cobalt Haunts Companies’ Supply Chains

(Photo: A village near copper and cobalt mining operations in the DRC. Credit: Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations)

Cobalt, a chemical element crucial for making lithium-ion batteries, continues to be mined using child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With the DRC producing two-thirds of the world’s cobalt and demand expected to increase, companies are struggling to clean up their supply chains, CNN reported.

“Dealers at markets in the DRC were filmed buying cobalt without verifying its source and mining method,” CNN’s Alanna Petroff wrote. “They then send it for processing where it is mixed with cobalt from other mines before ending up in batteries that power devices around the world.”

Children working in the DRC’s cobalt mining operations isn’t new. Amnesty International’s report on the problem was published in 2016, as Petroff pointed out. CBS News estimates that 40,000 children in the DRC work in cobalt mining. Yet cobalt was left off the list of conflict minerals that fall under the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s reporting rules introduced in 2012.

Despite the lack of disclosure required, companies like the tech giants that produce rechargeable devices and electric vehicle manufacturers say they want better transparency around cobalt.

Last fall, diversified miner Eurasian Resources Group (ERG) helped launch the Global Battery Alliance dedicated to ensuring an ethical and sustainable global supply chain for lithium-ion battery production, Mining Weekly reported. China’s Responsible Cobalt Initiative, established in 2016, includes Apple, Sony, and Volvo. Reuters noted that Daimler joined in late April. But it remains unclear how much progress either initiative has made so far.

Amnesty International and Afrewatch researchers interviewed dozens of current and former miners as well as 18 cobalt traders in southern DRC for their 2016 report. They found that 16 multinational consumer brands were not investigating their suppliers. “It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products,” Amnesty International researcher Mark Dummett said.

Going Straight To the Source

One of the central challenges with cobalt is a lack of monitoring systems for verifying the source. Audits aren’t enough. Citing information from Darton Commodities, Petroff wrote that more than half of all cobalt passes through China at some point in the supply chain. BMW, Volkswagen, and Daimler told the news outlet that they struggle with verification. A spokesperson for BMW said the automaker is considering buying cobalt directly from miners.

Bloomberg reported in February that Apple was also in talks with miners about buying directly. “The iPhone maker is one of the world’s largest end users of cobalt for the batteries in its gadgets, but until now it has left the business of buying the metal to the companies that make its batteries,” Jack Farchy and Mark Gurman wrote.

More Supply Chain Risks

In March, DNC government officials announced the launch of new monitoring and tracing mechanisms to address child labor in cobalt and copper production. However, few details have emerged since then.

The mineral-rich country’s president, Joseph Kabila, is nearing the end of his second and last official term. Reuters journalists noted recently that there is no sign of a successor and the DRC hasn’t had a peaceful change of power in the 58 years since gaining independence from Belgium.

“Militias have proliferated, killing and displacing villagers, kidnapping foreigners and shutting down eco-tourist spots,” they wrote. “The violence has hit mining operations in Africa’s top copper producer and the world’s leading miner of cobalt.”

The price of the element has tripled over the past two years and will likely continue rising. Without increased capacity, Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysts predict that prices could continue to spike and there could be a shortage. “Higher rates of recycling and a shift to less-cobalt intensive batteries can alleviate, but won’t remove, risks of supply constraints.”

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