The New iPhone 4 CF: Just an ideal?

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By Rhona Murray

In November 2010, Apple was attacked by the Yes Men, an activist NGO specialising in high publicity pranks against corporations believed to be operating unethically. The Yes Men constructed an identical Apple website and launched the iPhone 4 CF. The iPhone 4 CF was advertised as ‘conflict-free’, identical to the current iPhone but with a significant difference. The minerals within were not sourced from conflict ridden areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, thereby fuelling the violence and atrocities which plague these regions. Within hours Apple had applied its legal muscle and shut down the website. Yes Men Andy Birchlbaum responded that,

“Apple’s heavy handed and humourless reaction just shows where their big mechanical
(and conflict-mineral-rich) corporate heart is at.”

However, perhaps all is not as it seems. The Yes Men have come under intense criticism for their simplistic politics which render them less than ideal activists; their campaigns no more than impressive graphic designs and publicity grabbing stunts. Is this the only way to harvest a good crop of responsible Apple products? Or is there a more constructive NGO approach to identify what rots the core of the Apple giant? And how is Apple reacting to those NGOs whose campaigns constantly afflict the Apple brand?

In line with the growing awareness and activism of civil society is the growth of NGO coalitions, proof of the old adage strength in numbers. The main NGO coalition initiating engagement with major electronics companies, including Apple, is led by the Enough Project founded by the Centre for American Progress and the International Crisis Group in 2007 which focuses on the crises in Sudan and the DRC analysing ways in which to promote durable peace, protect civilians and bring to justice perpetrators of genocide and mass violence. This diverse coalition consists of 31 NGOs covering a geographic span from the US to France, Finland to South Africa, including student affiliations, consumer and electronic advocacy groups, secular and religious organisations and regards issues from conservation to genocide, labour rights to peace. A recent protest outside the new Georgetown Apple retail store, organised by the Enough Project, outlined the basis for their campaign against Apple.



The coalition’s objective is to target major brand companies at the top of the minerals supply chain to convince them to use their buying power to influence suppliers, exerting pressure down the supply chain and eliminating the risk of purchasing conflict minerals. If every electronics company ensured its products were conflict-mineral free, rebel and militia groups would be denied an estimated $180 million each year in the eastern Congo.This model has had some success in the apparel, forestry, and diamond sectors, nonetheless in these areas it is important to note there was significant legislation in effect as well.


In order to achieve such a goal, the Enough Project published the first major report which identifies the extent to which major electronic companies are sincerely addressing this issue. The research focused on the electronics industry, within which the top industry leaders in five electronics products: mobile phones, computers, televisions, MP3 players, and video game systems were chosen, as they are the main combined end-user of four conflict minerals: the 3Ts and gold. The Getting to Conflict-Free – Assessing Corporate Action on Conflict Minerals report in December 2010 was an effort to provide consumers with the information they need to purchase responsibly and publicly rank companies on their actions in five categories that have significant impact on the conflict minerals trade: tracing, auditing, certification, legislative support, and stakeholder engagement.


From the research conducted, Apple is rated as a middle tier company having made 13% progress towards responsible sourcing on conflict minerals. One of only six companies to have investigated their supply chain in detail, surveying suppliers and visiting factories, Apple proves progress is achievable despite the standard assumption that the complexity of supply chains makes such a process impossible.  Furthermore, there appears to be considerable interest from Apple’s senior management in strengthening the EICC Audit program and leading from the front. 
Nevertheless, Apple still has significant room for improvement as their operations are far from transparent, despite positive first steps. While Apple implements a strong internal audit policy, auditing 102 suppliers on environmental and labour standards in 2009, this process is not extended to its suppliers and smelters which are responsible for the gridlock in the supply chain, where minerals are processed into metals, a key event where all traces of mineral origins can be lost.

Following the publication of this report, earlier this year Apple’s annual Supplier Responsibility progress report included for the first time information on the minerals within its supply chain and its Supplier Code of Conduct, ultimately more information than any other electronics industry player, according to the Enough Project. In collaboration with the EICC, Apple is auditing the smelters with the goal of contractually obligating its suppliers to only source from smelters that comply with Apple and EICC standards. It appears that the NGO-Apple relationship has facilitated constructive dialogue and effective progress.

But Apple is only one company. As Motorola commented, “If the goal is to stop the flow of money to illegal armed groups then, like stopping the flow of water in a river, the dam must be built all the way across.”



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