Ethics, Environment and War
By Saleem Khan, Tue Jun 03 12:30:36 GMT 2003

Wireless companies are taking big steps to ensure their CSR programs have meaningful results.


In the wake of multi-billion dollar corporate scandals that have shaken investor confidence, battered financial markets and laid waste to global titans, the value of a company's reputation has become painfully clear: it's priceless.

All major mobile handset manufacturers - such as Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia - have corporate policies and codes that were first written and implemented years or decades ago. They say the kinds of things one expects: employees must behave within the boundaries of the law, respect human rights and the environment, be responsible and accountable, use fair and ethical business practices, avoid conflicts of interest and generally be good citizens.

One way the manufacturers put their policies into action is to donate equipment and services for emergency, disaster, humanitarian and safety efforts.

"In the U.S., we have a 40-foot-long tractor trailer ready to roll at a moment's notice," said Frank Maw, president of Motorola Canada.

The mobile communications station was called into action on Sept. 11, 2001, to help restore communications in New York after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and Motorola diverted handset shipments to equip rescue workers. Ericsson's Response program does similar work around the world, and last year won a GSM Award for the best use of wireless for emergency situations.

In Ontario, Canada, Ericsson partnered with the ministry of the Attorney-General and wireless carrier Rogers AT&T in 1998 to launch the province's SupportLink, which supplies people at high risk of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking with mobile phones so they can call authorities for help if necessary.

Protecting the Environment

Applying environmental policies is more complex. Although manufacturers have made progress toward reducing the ecological impact of handsets (by eliminating the use of lead solder in the electronics, for example), they now face a new issue.

"It's only now where a large percentage of the population are buying their second cell phone, it then raises the issue of what you do with the old cell phone," said Donal O'Connell, vice-president of research and development at Nokia Mobile Phones in Texas.

In the United States alone, the number of mobile-phone subscribers has risen from 340,000 in 1985 to over 128 million in 2001, according to a May 2002 report by the New York environment group Inform Inc. By 2005, the country can expect 130 million phones a year will be discarded, potentially creating a major environmental problem, the report says.

"We think there are attics and bottom drawers and closets full of these things," Maw said. "Probably less than five percent of all older, unused handsets have come back into the recycling world."

To address this, handset makers in North America are working with wireless industry groups like the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) to create an infrastructure and culture that enables people to easily return their old phones for reuse or recycling, although some manufacturers already run their own mail-in programs.

But the way in which some materials are recovered or disposed of may be far less controversial than how they find their way into the devices.

Funding War?

Tantalum is a rare, highly conductive and heat-resistant metal used in electronic components like capacitors, and is found in most mobile electronics, including phones. It's also at the center of a war.

The metal is refined from tantalite ore such as columbite-tantalite or "coltan." Some 80 per cent of the world's known coltan deposits are said to be in Africa. An estimated 80 per cent of those deposits - 64 per cent of the world's - is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a brutal war involving armies and guerilla groups from seven countries has killed as many as 4.7 million people since 1998. It is the greatest loss of life since World War 2.

"Because of its location and size, and because of the number of countries involved, the conflict in Congo could be described as Africa's first world war," former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 2000. "The continent cannot hope to meet the aspirations of its people until this war is history."

Similar to the diamond industry, coltan has been identified as a driving factor in the continuation of the war, with foreign armies, guerrilla groups and mining companies all plundering the ore. In April 2001, the United Nations issued a scathing report that accused publicly traded companies, governments and officials of illegally exploiting DRC's war and resources for personal gain.

According the Brussels-based Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center (TIC) - a 70-member industry group that says they account for about 60 percent of raw materials and at least 90 per cent of processing - tantalum demand has increased by 8 to 12 percent a year since 1995 as demand for mobile phones and other devices has grown. Coltan itself has reached a market price as high as $400 a kilogram.

The illicit trade makes it difficult to track how much so-called "blood coltan" has been sold, but the UN estimates the total value of exploited resources exceeds $5 billion. It also has an environmental impact - the mining destroys rainforests where endangered species of elephants and gorillas live, and miners and poachers hunt the animals for food or resale on exotic "bushmeat" black markets overseas.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and others have joined the call for a ban on the trade of blood coltan, and since 2001, the TIC has asked its members not to trade in coltan from DRC. But the TIC disputes the widely-reported figures for the main source of coltan.

"I have tracked this statement about '80 per cent of the world's coltan' back to November 1999 or so, but could not find the real source, only a press reference," said J. A. Wickens, TIC secretary-general. "TIC estimates that currently, no more than 10 per cent of raw material supply of tantalum comes from Africa."

Whatever the numbers may be, handset manufacturers take the issue seriously.

"We have very aggressively followed back upstream with some of our component suppliers that do put tantalum in some of the components we use, to ensure they're bringing the material in from legitimate mines," Maw, of Motorola, said.

Similarly, Nokia has previously issued a directive barring vendors from buying blood coltan from the DRC.

"Nokia is very aware of these materials because of the war situation in the Congo, " O'Connell said. "We have contacted all of our vendors and advised them not to buy materials from the mines in the Congo as we do not want to be contributing to the war situation there."

It's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

Saleem Khan covers technology, media and international affairs for the New York Times, Canada's Globe and Mail and Metro International, and was an editor for Toronto Star Newspapers. He can be reached at www.mobilejournalist.com.