Sustainable Supply And the Trouble With Tantalum

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There’s more to sustainable IT than low-power servers. consider the materials with which your equipment is made, and you may get a shock, says Simon Perry

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Anyone who’s ever attempted to avoid certain foodstuffs, whether for reasons of taste, allergy, diet, belief or morals, will know that it’s the fine print in the ingredients list that is all important.

The ingredients list, together with standardised disclosure labels such as the Soil Association’s “Organic” symbol, the Fairtrade mark, and the Food Association’s “traffic light” symbol help consumers make informed decisions over what they put in their mouths. It’s worth noting that many foods have ingredients lists longer than the fine print in a mobile phone contract, which is an indicator that when required to by legislation, manufacturing companies can manage to track a complex set of base ingredients in a way that supports required disclosure.

Such disclosure requirements aren’t always welcomed by industry, but there’s a grudging acceptance of the need to label, together with a strong desire to happily seek a stamp of approval if having one is suddenly recognised as being a positive brand differentiator. Disclosure, and informed choice, are after all powerful market shaping forces that have created new markets and enabled the phasing out of products, sources, and manufacturing methods newly considered undesirable or dangerous.

In the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) food market, two examples are the Fairtrade and Organic Produce marks. There have also been notable “issues based” campaigns such as that conducted by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the UK against battery farmed chickens during 2008 and 2009. The power of such issues-based campaigns ought not to be downplayed especially when sufficient media attention gets behind one. Consumer preference can be extensively shaped when attention is drawn to the sourcing of produce tainted with the whiff of dubious morals or unsustainable practices.
Disclosure also supports one of the most basic and powerful tools of

international diplomacy; the application of economic pressure through sanctions and market control. Forcing companies to identify and disclose the use of materials sourced from a particular country allows for the enforcement of laws restricting trade between certain countries. The USA’s Export.gov site provides full information regarding international trade restrictions, as does the UK’s Foreign and Commercial Office site. Such restrictions fundamentally shape market behaviour, and restrict everyday company actions such as selling to or sourcing from specific countries.

What has all this to do with the ICT and consumer electronics industries? The answer is tantalum. Tantalum is a rare mineral with conductance properties that make it an essential ingredient in the capacitors inside every mobile phone (and many other ICT devices). Tantalum is sourced from only a few mines around the world, with the majority of supplies now coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The DRC has been in a state of guerrilla warfare for many years to the tune of around 6 million deaths, and tantalum mining and export is to the conflict what opium poppy farming is to Afghanistan; providing a rich source of international trade that funds continued conflict. Tantalum’s role in the DRC conflict has long been recognised, with the UN creating a panel to look at the issue back in 2001, at the direction of then UN secretary general Kofi Annan.