In Tesla’s 2020 shareholder meeting, one shareholder proposal would have required the company to investigate the poor treatment of cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While the proposal stemmed from a larger legal effort against buyers of cobalt from the country, it’s part of an even larger overall controversy over cobalt sourcing in various industries. Tesla, other automakers, and a variety of other manufacturers (especially of electronics) have all got caught up in it, but automakers have a bigger share of the responsibility due to the large number of battery cells electric cars and hybrids need compared to things like laptops, tablets, and cell phones.
While this article will not give an exhaustive listing of everything every automaker is doing, I did want to mention a few of the efforts. By knowing a little bit about where we stand on the issue, we can get a better idea of where we need to be and how to get there.
A Little About The Problem
While the Democratic Republic of the Congo sounds like it’s run by a nice government, that’s often not the case. Located next to the Republic of the Congo, the country was run by a dictator until 2001. Democratic reforms were implemented after the dictatorship ended, but the country’s human rights problems did not go away. In recent years, the country has been called a “violent kleptocracy” by rights groups. There are still tens of thousands of child soldiers, and other child labor is still very common. Forced labor (a kind way to say “slavery”) is also still common, presumably overlapping with child labor.
Violence against women is still very common, including beatings and female genital mutilation. State security forces are also known to harass LGBT people.
In short, it’s not a very nice place to live.
The country’s existing problems definitely exist in the mining sector. Child labor, slave labor, and poor working conditions (bad enough that people get maimed and killed) are all a problem. With the country holding most of the world’s cobalt, the problems can be difficult to avoid for any industry that needs the metal.
In response, organizations like the Organisaton for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) developed guidelines to avoid these problems in supply chains. In theory, not purchasing metals that came from bad mining operations eliminates the problem because there’s ten no demand for such operations to continue.
This creates great temptation, though. Because it’s cheaper to use slave labor and avoid protecting workers, getting responsibly sourced metals from mining operations will cost more. This creates a great incentive/temptation to sneak irresponsibly sourced metals into responsible supply chains, because the cheaper product can then be sold for the higher price of metals not produced with slave labor and poor working conditions.
Enforcing guidelines, preventing smuggling of slave-mined minerals into good supply chains, and keeping responsible suppliers from going rogue all requires constant monitoring, and you can’t count on government officials to help. At all.
What Tesla is Doing
In Tesla’s 2019 impact report, the company writes:
“In order to further increase the transparency of our cobalt supply chain, we collect detailed data from relevant suppliers using the Responsible Minerals Initiative’s (‘RMI’) Cobalt Reporting Template. Because Tesla recognizes the higher risks of human rights issues within cobalt supply chains, particularly for child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (‘DRC’), we have made a significant effort to establish processes to remove these risks from our supply chain. We also recognize that mining conducted in a responsible and ethical manner is an important part of the economic and social well-being of those communities. We review all information provided by our suppliers for red flags and risks associated with ethical sourcing. Where we can be assured that minerals, including cobalt, are coming from mines that meet our social and environmental standards, we will continue to support sourcing from the DRC and other regions.”
While this sounds good, some critics accuse Tesla of taking other companies’ word for their data without enough verification. Terry Collingsworth, the man who presented the Tesla shareholder initiative, and executive director for International Rights Advocates (IRA), is currently suing Tesla and other companies. He says that despite the efforts described above, there is still dangerous child labor happening in the cobalt supply chain. CleanTechnica cannot confirm either claim — Tesla’s or IRA’s.
The shareholder initiative didn’t pass, but Tesla isn’t sitting on its hands anyway. Tesla’s 2019 report also states, “These results will continue to improve over time as we work with our suppliers and help them better align their internal processes for sourcing of cobalt to meet the same standards we hold ourselves to for this important area of our supply chain. Tesla has also started to engage directly with smelters and mines within our supply chain, both in and outside of the DRC.”
In other words, Tesla is still working to directly monitor its cobalt supply chain to further improve the situation. Hopefully in the near future we will get more information about any improvements since 2019 either from Tesla or from rights activists.
Another way Tesla is improving the situation is by reducing and eliminating its need for cobalt. Upcoming “high-nickel” battery designs won’t need any cobalt from any supply chain. While this would end Tesla’s involvement in the issue, other manufacturers will likely still need the metal for some time.
Additionally, one of Tesla’s suppliers, Glencore, has joined a blockchain monitoring initiative (more on that below).
Last month, Volkswagen announced its own direct in-country efforts.
“The pilot project in the Congolese cobalt belt has two focus areas: improving artisanal cobalt mining conditions as well as the living conditions for people in the surrounding communities. Progress in both areas is to be achieved in cooperation with the local mining cooperatives, government authorities and civil society organizations. This is to be accomplished by improving mine site management and through health, safety and environmental training for miners. The surrounding communities are to benefit from improved access to education, new income opportunities and training in conflict resolution.”
In short, they’re trying to engage with people at every level in the region to change things. Mine management needs to improve, but the workers need training in both safety and what their rights are. The surrounding community is also part of the issue, and VW is treating them like the stakeholders they are. Again, though, CleanTechnica cannot confirm progress on this topic or how the policies are implemented.
In addition, VW has joined an initiative to use blockchain technology (more below).
GM makes the Chevrolet Bolt EV and soon upcoming models from Cadillac and Chevrolet. Like Tesla, GM is planning on using less cobalt in its battery packs. In the past, GM hasn’t answered a lot of questions about its supply chain, instead referring people to the suppliers they buy the cobalt from. They’ve also been sued over the issue, and I can’t seem to find much information about how they’re responding to the issue. I’ll be sure to update readers as I find more information.
Other Automakers: The Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network
IBM and Ford started an initiative to not only collect data on mining operations, but also use blockchain technology to help enforce the responsible sourcing policies. Since starting, Volkswagen, Volvo, Fiat-Chrysler, LG Chem (a common automotive pack supplier), and other automotive companies have all joined the effort. Glencore, a Tesla supplier, has also joined.
The idea is to introduce more traceability and accountability, as well as prevent data tampering. By being more sure of the collected data, it’s harder for the cheaters to get away with it. Local monitoring is key, but the same perverse incentives that lead to smuggling bad metals in with the good applies to data and monitoring. The less corruption involved in the monitoring process, the better.
Recommended report: Blockchain — An Innovation Enabler for Clean Technology
An Ongoing Process We Are A Part Of
Nearly every automaker and battery supplier says they have future plans for better monitoring, the joining of initiatives with others and nonprofits, etc.
While these announcements are encouraging, it’s going to be up to us as buyers and the EV community to keep the pressure on and monitor the automakers’ efforts. After all, we are the final step in the supply chain. We should definitely be supporting rights activists, monitoring nonprofits, and other entities that bring additional accountability to the process.
When you buy an EV, be sure to check up on the automaker’s efforts before parting with your money.
As for myself, after reading and learning more about this issue, it’s going to be one of my key questions when looking at EV announcements, doing reviews, and otherwise sharing information with our readers. I’m committing to getting these answers regularly and sharing what I can find (if anything) with you in the future. As a mom, I can’t bear to ignore this issue any longer. The mothers and their children in the DRC deserve better.
If we all do our part, we can help improve the situation together.