Apple and other US companies haven’t done enough to keep conflict minerals out of their products

Boys pan for gold in the resource-rich Ituri region of eastern Congo.
Boys pan for gold in the resource-rich Ituri region of eastern Congo.
Image: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Several dozen major American companies are failing to adequately ensure that minerals funding conflict in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) don’t end up in their products, according to two international nonprofit groups.

A report released this week by Amnesty International and Global Witness examined 100 listed companies in the United States that filed conflict minerals reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2014, and found that 79% of the sample had failed to meet the minimum disclosure requirements of a conflict mineral law that went into effect last year.

Several of the companies that the report says did not meet the requirements are household names, including Apple, Google, IBM, Amazon, and China Mobile. The report does not assert that these companies definitely used conflict minerals—but rather that they failed to adequately show that they have eliminated such materials from their supply chain. The groups analyzed public information submitted by the companies to the SEC and marked as in compliance only those who met all 12 criteria (pdf, p.6), ranging from having a risk assessment process to describing their supply chain’s due diligence process.

The companies were among more than a thousand that filed the reports in accordance with a section of 2010’s Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that requires US-listed companies to report whether minerals they purchase are being used to fund militia groups and fuel violence in Central Africa. The DRC is a major source of gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten, materials commonly used in electronics. According to the industry group Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative, there are about 300 to 600 companies there that process ore into metal, and only about 100 of them don’t use conflict minerals.

The report calls upon the SEC to impose fines or take other measures to punish companies whose reports don’t show full compliance with the laws on conflict minerals. A spokeswoman for the SEC declined to comment.

Carly Oboth, a policy adviser at Global Witness, said the report is a way to hold American firms accountable. “Well-funded industry groups have fought the conflict minerals law at every step,” she said in a statement. “If companies had instead spent these resources on properly investigating and reporting on their supply chains, their customers would be more confident their goods were conflict-free.”

Quartz has reached out to Google, Amazon, IBM, China Mobile for comment, and did not hear back. We will update this post with any responses.

Apple declined to comment but pointed to its ongoing progress on eliminating conflict minerals from its supply chain. According to a sustainability report in February, the company had audited 135 of 225 smelters to make sure they do not use such minerals traced back to armed groups. Another 64 are in the process of being verified as conflict-free, and four that were unwilling to commit to the new standards are on notice to be removed from the company’s supply chain.

Others listed in Amnesty and Global Witness’s report include major consumer goods manufacturers such as Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Home Depot, which all have statements on their websites pledging their commitment to using conflict-free minerals (here, here, and here). Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have not responded to Quartz’s request for comment.

“We’re confident that our filing complies with the law,” said Stephen Holmes, a spokesman for Home Depot. “Regardless, we’re committed to the responsible sourcing of materials for our products, and we expect suppliers to be committed to the same.” Home Depot is listed in the report as one of a minority of companies that have followed up with unresponsive suppliers.

The two nonprofits point to the fact that 21 of the companies they examined—including Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Tiffany—were able to meet the disclosure standards, as evidence that more robust checks are possible if companies are willing.

Still, the conflict mineral law is not without its critics. Some researchers say that mine closures have resulted in unemployed miners taking up with the very armed groups that legislators had hoped to starve of resources, and that a black market in minerals is now thriving.

Here is a full list of the companies whose filings were analyzed by Amnesty and Global Witness, and whether or not they were deemed to meet the minimum requirements of US conflict mineral legislation: