Blood Electronics: Naomi Campbell's lesson for Silicon Valley CEOs

Poor old Naomi Campbell looked like she was chewing wasps during her reluctant testimony at the war crimes tribunal for Charles Taylor at the Hague last week. Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, is up on some very serious charges of murder and mayhem as he ran amok in West Africa destabilizing not only his own country but Sierra Leone also.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

Poor old Naomi Campbell looked like she was chewing wasps during her reluctant testimony at the war crimes tribunal for Charles Taylor at the Hague last week. Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, is up on some very serious charges of murder and mayhem as he ran amok in West Africa destabilizing not only his own country but Sierra Leone also. The region exploded into conflict fueled essentially by a scramble to control the exploitation of natural resources such as diamonds and timber, hence the later coining of the term 'blood diamond'.

Naomi Campbell got sucked into this because she, according to testimony, received unfinished diamonds from an amorous Charles Taylor at the home of Nelson Mandela back in 1997. But the unfinished goods failed to impress the discerning Naomi:

When I’m used to seeing diamonds, I’m used to seeing them shiny and in a box.

In an eerie echo of BP's ill fated ex CEO Tony Hayward's comments about wanting his life back Campbell, who had to be compelled to appear, addressed the court thus:

I didn't really want to be here. So, I was made to be here. Obviously I just want to get this over with and get on with my life. This is a big inconvenience to me.......... I really don't want anything to do with this.

Naomi clearly likes to be insulated from the harsh realities of the supply chain and prefers not to know or have anything to do with war criminals who control a key commodity trade. Don't we all?

So what's any of this got to do with Silicon Valley? It happens that diamonds are not the only minerals dug out of the ground in war zones, so also is tin ore which is used extensively in circuitry printing for consumer electronics. Two years ago I wrote about the apalling conditions of tine ore workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the then lack lustre response from Silicon Valley on the issue. Last year I covered the issue again and how the industry was still not responding. Since then the moribund industry groups, the Global e Sustainability Initiative and the Electronic Industry Corporate Citizenship initiative, finally got around to issuing a lame duck paper and organising its first supply chain workshop.

Yet this is a latent brand and reputational risk that would'nt take much to explode in the public consciousness. Tom Foremski related what Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) had to say on this recently:

This is one of those issues that is below the radar for about 99.9 percent of Americans. . . . Everyone has their cellphone up against their ear, nobody is thinking of Congo or conflict minerals. But everybody’s got some, potentially, right next to their ear

The industry's inability to tackle this critical humanitarian issue has finally led to government action with the passing of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection act. According to Global Witness (disclosure: see my bio) who has almost single handedly framed the conflict resource issue over the past two decades:

The Act will also require companies whose products contain cassiterite (tin ore), coltan, wolframite and gold to disclose to the SEC whether they are sourcing these minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries. Companies will have to detail the measures they have taken to avoid sourcing these minerals from DRC armed groups, which are guilty of massacres and other atrocities.  The bill also requires that all information disclosed be independently audited.

The more progressive industry players on sustainability such as HP have welcomed the intervention as a positive step:

HP applauds Congress and President Obama for including conflict minerals language in the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. We believe this provision will help provide much-needed transparency in companies’ supply chains, reduce the purchase and use of conflict minerals known to fund the ongoing armed conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and thus help reduce some of the factors that have contributed to the civil war there.

But the devil is in the details  - its a big ask and there are signs that still the penny hasn't completely dropped. There is a real risk that the industry will devolve this down to a compliance box ticking exercise along the supply chain partner network but fail to tackle the issue of completely removing the conflict resource trade and so leave their brand and personal reputations wide open to Naomi Campbell type risk. Steve Jobs for one didn't sound too confident about conflict free components in the iPhone last month:

We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict free materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem.

Even HP are bearish on the issue in their latest sustainability report:

We are pleased that our suppliers have cooperated with us to provide what information they could. Despite this feedback, there is no certification mechanism currently available that can assure us that the metals used in our products are not sourced from mineral trade associated with the conflict in the DRC.

Dell too:

These minerals are extracted from only a few other locations in the world, for example, the DRC. In our industry, the mining of these minerals takes many stages before a final product is assembled, making it difficult, if not impossible, to trace the minerals' origins.

But here's the thing - its really not beyond the wit of man to measure, track and trace this stuff. We have already an entire accounting protocol which spans the value chain from production to consumption to measure CO2 and its an invisible gas, a mere by product of process.

If we can manage carbon in an integrated manner across business networks in order to save the climate for the future, why could we not do the same to save lives in DRC today? Taking an industry vertical approach for tin ore management just as we do for the Greenhouse Gas Protocol dictates that this is not just a hardware issue but that the software industry too must take responsibility for its consumption/use phase. Software vendors should also be controlling their supply chain and taking responsibility to work this issue at industry level.

Naomi Campbell found herself in the dock last week answering uncomfortable questions about 'blood diamonds', a term that, she was quick to point out, didn't even exist back in 1997 when she met a lusty Charles Taylor. Lets hope Silicon Valley CEOs don't find themselves, some time down the road, answering awkward questions at war crimes tribunals about how conflict resources might have made their way into the company supply chain and what efforts they should have taken to stop that from happening.

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