Rise of the Killer Gadgets: The 5 You Need to Know

It’s hard to make generalizations about Americans. But here’s one I’ll buy: We tend to rush things. Especially our shopping. Right now, in fact, millions of us, having left our holiday buying to the last minute, are scurrying about picking up our remaining gifts, including those we planned on purchasing since we saw that Canon, Panasonic or Nintendo ad months ago.

What we don’t do is think a lot about stuff. Like the stuff we rush to buy and where the stuff that makes up that stuff comes from. For example, how many people in that insanely packed Best Buy I passed by this morning are going in thinking about where the tungsten in that cell phone they’re about to purchase comes from – and who’s making a load of cash on it way up the product’s food chain?

Well, somebody’s thinking about it. And they want you think about it, too.

The Enough Project is a group dedicated to “helping to build a permanent constituency to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity.” Their focus is primarily on Africa where, 15 years after the murder of more than 800,000 people in Rwanda, the global response to current bloodshed on the continent is pretty much the same today as it was then – way too close to nil.

And your next trip to Best Buy may play a starring role in this drama. A large percentage of high-tech gadgets in today’s marketplace are made using “conflict minerals” mined in the Congo (where diamonds are also at issue), the profits from which are fueling and encouraging mass murder and rape, and other atrocities throughout the region. (This is according to the U.N. Security Council’s “Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo” released last month.) As for the size of the problem, consider this: in the last 15-plus years, conflict in eastern Congo alone has caused more deaths than from any war since WWII.

The deal with the minerals is this, says the Enough Project: “Worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the conflict minerals trade [the ores that produce the ‘3Ts’ – tin, tantalum, tungsten – and gold] provides incentives for rebel groups, militias, and criminal networks within the Congolese army to control strategic mines and trading routes through patterns of violent extraction and deeply exploitative behavior.”

Tantalum, tin and tungsten are critical elements used in laptops, mobile phones and other common electronics most of us use every day. Electricity is stored in tantalum, tin is used in circuit board soldering, gold is essential to wiring and tungsten is used to make mobile phones vibrate.

Here are five product areas the Enough Project thinks we all should be asking manufacturers questions about:



Digital Cameras

Video Game Devices

Mobile Phones

To deal with the problem, the Enough Project recently began working with major electronics companies, engaging (or attempting to engage) 21 industry leaders to call their attention to the issue and inquire about the steps they are taking to ensure their products are “conflict-free.” Last week, it released a report called “Getting to Conflict-Free Assessing Corporate Action on Conflict Minerals,” which ranks the companies as to how well they’re doing in identifying where their minerals come from and taking action to eliminate or at least minimize the use of materials from the region. High marks went out to HP (the best of the bunch), Intel, Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft and Dell. Worst of breed on the issue were Canon, Panasonic, Sharp and Nintendo.

The group’s objective is to have companies at the top of the minerals supply chain “use their buying power to influence their suppliers, exerting pressure down the supply chain, a model of change that has had success in the apparel, forestry, and diamond sectors.” The project’s website reports that it has “seen dramatic changes” since the group began its work, including the passage of conflict minerals legislation in the United States.

The Enough Project is not attempting to instigate coordinated boycotts of certain companies or products, but the group is asking you to take action by learning about which companies are cooperating with efforts to end such blood profits and which are not, and is providing a easy way to engage in the latter in a coordinated campaign.

“We would hope that consumers understand that some companies are clearly taking positive steps toward becoming conflict free, however there is still a long way to go,” Enough Project Policy Analyst Aaron Hall told EcoSalon. “Consumer driven action is one of the most powerful tools for change in our country, and we would encourage people to visit our website, click on the ‘take action’ tab and contact your favorite companies as well as elected representatives and let them know your concerns. If they have been productive on the conflict minerals issue, thank them and ask them to continue to do more. If they are behind the curve, ask them why and demand action. The reduction of violence and mass atrocities in eastern Congo will not be possible without the momentum and pressure created by consumer based action.”

While putting the onus on you – the consumer – is debatable in terms of its ultimate efficacy, it seems that few companies are in any mood to police themselves and governments seem to have little to no interest in atrocities occurring in the region. In any case, maybe the next time the tungsten in your cell phone gives you that little bzzz letting you know so-and-so is calling, consider it a reminder to maybe take some time to better get to know your stuff.

Images: Axel Bührmann, MC4 Army, blogefl, Creative Tools, doobybrain, cloneofsnake

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott@adelson.org.