Is the Tech Industry a Rare Earth Metal Bubble?

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When Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the Super Bowl with his team in 2011, he still had a slightly empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. As he told the story to a rally at the University of Wisconsin, while winning a ring was a dream come true, he always knew that there was something bigger to life.

“I said to myself, ‘Is this it? Is there more to life than this?’” he recalled. “And the answer was resoundingly, ‘Yes.’ And that’s why I’m here tonight.”

The rally was in support of the organization Raise Hope For Congo, a group he has been working with along with actress Emmanuelle Chiqui. Together, they hope to end the mindless consumerism that is helping to drive the civil war in the Congo, which has killed over 5 million people have died in the war since 1998. An important contributing factor: the warlord-driven mining industry that feeds the tech addiction in the United States.

“People don’t realize they are indirectly contributing to a massive conflict over there. The pain and suffering that country has seen is just beyond anything,” Chiqui told ESPN’s Greg Garber.

Indeed, the minerals that are being mined from the resource rich country have played a huge role in the ongoing conflict. In the DRC, militia groups routinely seize mines and force residents, many times young boys, to work them for precious metals. These metals are then smuggled across the border, and sold into an international market. Those who don’t comply are subjected to rape, violence or forced to join the militia ranks.

“We can say to these tech companies that we want to live in a world where our electronics do not fund rape and war,” Rodgers said.

And from the look of it, tech companies are starting to pay attention.

YOUR DEVICE AND ITS WARLORD CONNECTION

In the keynote speech at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced that his company would not produce a single chip in 2014 that uses a conflict mineral. He then urged “the entire industry to join us in this journey.”

The company’s “Conflict Free Sourcing Policy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” on their website says that the policy was adopted in April 2013, but this seems to be the first major announcement they have made on the issue. “Conflict free” is defined as not “directly or indirectly financing or benefiting armed groups” according to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which the company cites in the policy.

However, this move by Intel could also be seen as a way to preemptively get some good PR.

A little known provision that was tucked into the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform law requires certain manufacturers to disclose if their products contain materials from a war-torn part of Africa. The results from the inquiries must be disclosed to the SEC, and posted on company websites, including Intel’s.

Just this Tuesday, the law was scrutinized by a US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in a case between the SEC, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Associations of Manufacturers. “This is a shame rule,” attorney Peter Keisler, who argued for the Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers, told Reuters, saying that the law violates the First Amendment by forcing companies to condemn their own products.

One board member for the National Association of Manufacturers is a high ranking employee of Intel.

Judges asked whether the law was intended to fuel boycotts of products, or to stigmatize companies. SEC attorney Tracey Hardin told the court that the law is meant to “promote peace and security” in the DRC region, and that some of these metals are fueling an intensifying conflict.

Though it is unclear when the judges will rule on the appeal to a case that the SEC won, the SEC is still expecting companies to file the first report under that law by May of 2014.

We’ll have to see what Intel’s report for the last few years says when its released, though we will have to wait some time to see if they live up to their 2014 promise.

IS TECH AN EARTH RESOURCES BUBBLE?

Another way to reduce demand for conflict metals would be to reuse the metal in existing devices. In India, for example, the waste picking sub-economy is thriving, as rummagers find electronics and extract them for bits of scrap gold and other elements. Last year, India estimates that 61.3 tons of gold were recycled from the process.

The incentive to recycle these rare metals is clear: A recent Yale study revealed that many of the 63 essential materials used to make electronics have no substitutes, should the supply ever run out, or geopolitical circumstances prevent the mines from operating properly.

According to the report, this lack of substitutes “underscores an increased urgency for better management of these resources, particularly as population and wealth increase worldwide.” This illustrates something that is hardly brought up in the tech world: sustainability, in the real sense of the word.

“Specialty metals are being used more and more for new technologies such as solar energy systems,” associate research scientist for the Yale study Ermelinda Harper said. “As we employ these technologies, it’s really important we think about what metals are employed, and whether there will be a stable supply for them.”

Back at a rally for Raise Help for Congo in Wisconsin, Aaron Rodgers spoke to a crowd about being conscious of the purchases that they make, and the larger implications that they have half a world away.

“Many of you in the crowd are holding your cellphones up,” he said. “You can have an impact in a tangible way with something that’s your lifeline.”

In a way, while Rodgers was only talking to a small crowd at the time, he could have just as easily been speaking to the whole increasingly connected world. In this new tech economy, it is impossible to separate the two from one another.