Apple Cleans Up Its Battery Supply Chain, But Not Microsoft, Per Amnesty International

Last week I blogged about how electric vehicles (and consumer electronics) run on batteries with cobalt, too-often mined with child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo is the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, with more than half of global supplies. And cobalt prices have skyrocketed recently with the growth of EVs.

But reports by Amnesty International point to the human rights risks. The group says that approximately one-fifth of Congo’s cobalt production is mined by hand by “informal miners,” including children, in dangerous conditions. Amnesty recently ranked 29 companies on how well they were tracking their cobalt sources since a January 2016 report spotlighted the issue. Reuters covered the results:

“Apple became the first company to publish the names of its cobalt suppliers … but other electronics brands have made alarmingly little progress,” the statement said.

Most cobalt is produced as a by-product of copper or nickel mining, but artisanal miners in southern Congo exploit deposits near the surface that are rich in cobalt.

The biggest buyer of ore from small-scale miners was Congo Dongfang Mining International, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd, Amnesty found in its report last year.

Since then, Huayou Cobalt “has taken a number of steps” in line with international standards but “gaps in information remain”, Amnesty said.

The group was particularly critical of Microsoft, which was among 26 companies that does not disclose their suppliers’ records on this issue, as well as Renault and Daimler among the automakers (BMW had made the most improvements).  Microsoft responded to the criticism, arguing that it’s doing more than the report indicates to clean up and disclose its supply chain.

The Amnesty report shows the value of public pressure on this issue. While a global governance framework to ensure a stable and just supply of battery materials will likely be needed, it’s encouraging to know that old fashioned public pressure can help bring progress, too.