Stopping minerals from fuelling conflict.

Steven Young holds up a circuit board and a gold coin.

It’s not hard to get fair trade coffee from Kenya, organic tomatoes from Mexico, or Indonesian wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. But it’s harder to track where metals come from.

Steven B. Young, associate professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, is playing a part in changing that.

Ores are mined at hundreds of different mines and fed into a common smelter. The smelter may sell metal to hundreds of different buyers, then there might be five or 10 “layers of trading” before the metals end up in everything from electronics to cars to jewelry, says Young.

Problem is, in some parts of the world, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mines have been seized by militias that use forced labour and children forced to work under deplorable conditions. The minerals are smuggled out and the proceeds used to buy weapons, says Young.

Not only is this obviously bad for the victims of conflict, it’s bad for the companies that use metals and end up fuelling, or being accused of fuelling, war and human rights abuses.

Young has a background in metallurgy, sustainable materials management, and corporate social responsibility. In 2006, he started working with electronics industry associations to do a report on social and environmental responsibility in the electronics supply chain.

The electronics industry later put together the Conflict-Free Smelter program. Young describes it as “an industry-led, voluntary effort toward corporate social responsibility” that’s “trying to certify the absence of conflict minerals and metals” in end-use products.

Young now sits on the program’s audit review committee. The committee reviews the work of auditors who investigate mines.

The program tracks tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold, all of which have been identified by U.S. legislation as potential conflict minerals. Companies involved include Waterloo’s Research In Motion, as well as many other big names such as Bell, Best Buy, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony.

The program is new and untested, but it’s “a large effort that’s being developed by the goodwill of these industries,” says Young. Though it’s hard to evaluate, “there are indications that changes have happened.”