Apple + Conflict Metals = Trouble with Activists

Many people are aware of blood or conflict diamonds.  These gems are were/are used to fuel violent conflicts in Africa.  Awareness was increased through activist efforts and a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio.  Less well known is the idea of conflict metals.  A similar dynamic is at work.  Violent conflicts are being funded through militant groups using the mines, primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  The illicit trade includes cassiterite, coltan and wolframite.  The metals are sold and the money used to buy weapons and fund violence.  The hope is that by stopping the trade of conflict metal, violent militants will lose a vital source of funding.  But that is only one piece of the larger violence puzzle.  Not familiar with these metals?  Don’t worry, most people do not know that these metals are commonly found in electronics including mobile phones and music players.  Governments and corporations are now facing tough choices about how to deal with conflict metals.  Here is a statement by Noikia:

“Though Nokia is not involved in the purchase of minerals, we ban the use of conflict metals and demand that our suppliers abstain from the use of metals originating from conflict areas.  Specifically, we do the following: since 2001 we’ve required written assurance from all of our Tantalum capacitor suppliers that the Tantalum (from Coltan) does not originate from the illegal mines in DRC, and we have also expanded this practice to our vibra suppliers regarding Tungsten (from Wolframite) and Tin solder suppliers (from Cassiterite). Furthermore, all of our key suppliers are required to map their supply chains for the metals in their components back down to smelter and then to source” http://conversations.nokia.com/2010/08/26/putting-a-ban-on-conflict-metals/

Recently, Apple has been the target of activist efforts increase awareness of conflict metal and press for corporations to renounce their use.  Activists target market leaders because (1) that gets attention and (2) if market leaders change their behavior, others are likely to follow.  The YesMen specialize in embarrassing corporations through fake public relations messages such as news releases and web sites.  The day Apple announced the Beatles were now on iTunes, the YesMen struck:

“On Tuesday, they launched a website that was a spitting image for Apple’s, and professed to be announcing a new product: the iPhone4CF. “CF” stood for conflict-free, and the site promised that the new phone was exactly like the normal iPhone 4, only it didn’t source its minerals from conflict-ridden regions like the Democratic Republic of Congo, thereby fueling atrocities there”  http://gawker.com/5694967/apple-not-amused-by-pranksters-fake-iphone-site

Apple forced the YesMen to take the web site down within two days of the action.  Of course Apple’s reaction echoed across the Internet.  Any removal of an Internet message is considered a form of censorship and will spread across the Internet.  The removal was a result of pressure by Apple on the YesMen’s Internet provider (http://www.fastcompany.com/1703966/yes-men-attack-apple-advertising-special-conflict-free-iphone?partner=rss).  But the point was made, Apple does not have a policy about conflict metal but is thinking about it. 

Apple and other US-based corporations need to think about conflict metals because of a new reporting law in the US.  Corporations will be required to disclose if they purchased and used any of four specific metals from  the DRC.  The purchases are not illegal, they simply have to be disclosed.  If corporations can prove they do not use metals from the DRC, they can be marketed as conflict free (
http://www.techeye.net/business/apple-could-face-problems-with-new-congo-law).  So there is motivation to think about conflict metals. 

Questions to Consider

1.   How ethical was the YesMen’s attack on Apple?  Apple’s response?

2.   Why should stakeholder awareness of conflict metals be a concern to corporations who use them?

3.  If you were Apple, how would you defend your current behavior in regards to conflict metals?

 4.  How is Nokia using conflict metals to their advantage?

 5.  How might the US disclosure law affect future corporate communication efforts by corporations that use the four metals on the conflict list?

 6.  What public relations advantages might activists have in pressuring corporations to end the purchasing of conflict metals?

7.  How might this case be viewed as an issue of transparency?

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