The Human Cost Of New Technology

A rush for raw materials is exposing the real price of new batteries

The move towards electric vehicles (EVs) is being lauded as one of the greatest green developments of our age. EV specialist Tesla might have made the electric car cool, but now legacy automobile companies like Volkswagen, BMW, and Nissan are getting in on the action. Replacing the world’s combustion engines with electricity, we are told, is not only good news for the environment, but is also a necessary step in improving our health in polluted towns and cities.

There is a catch, however. The electric vehicle boom has driven demand for the raw materials used in the manufacture of batteries. Cobalt – a key battery ingredient – has seen soaring prices, with its value tripling over the past 18 months alone. Securing cobalt stocks has become a huge concern for the world’s technology companies, but the human cost of meeting this demand can no longer be ignored.

Child labour, dangerous conditions

Around two thirds of the world’s cobalt production comes from the mineral rich lands of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Mining provides a significant proportion of the country’s GDP, with major multinationals such as Glencore and BHP Billiton all profiting from high return mining investments there. The recent drive for increased cobalt production isn’t being met by the DRC’s biggest mines, however. Government statistics show that growth in cobalt extraction is being powered by small and medium sized mines. Such production is largely unregulated, with dangerous conditions for workers, frequent human fatalities, and the widespread use of child labour.

Shocking as this is, knowledge of these practices isn’t new. Amnesty International published a report in 2016 criticising large technology brands for their reliance on minerals produced with child labour. Leading electricals manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung were implicated in a cobalt supply chain which led back to the exploitation of children in the DRC. Whilst around eight grams of cobalt are used to make the lithium ion batteries in smartphones, electric vehicle batteries require over a thousand times more than this. If things weren’t looking good for the ethics of our electrical gadgets before the EV revolution, they’re now getting a whole lot worse.

What’s to be done?

In this new cobalt climate, technology companies are being forced to adapt their raw material strategies. However, this mostly seems to revolve around securing access to cobalt supplies, rather than ensuring that the commodity is ethically sourced. According to industry insiders, Apple is exploring the possibility of buying cobalt directly from mines, rather than through an intermediary. Whilst the technology giant has vetted its cobalt suppliers for its Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports, this decision to go straight to the mines is clearly largely motivated by supply concerns and not by ethics. As the world’s supply of cobalt becomes hotly contested, the race is on for technology companies to get their hands on it. With batteries proving so crucial to our electric future, not only in smartphones, but computers, robots and renewables, going direct to the mine seems the smart business decision. Whilst this may also improve the traceability of raw materials, it will not necessarily solve the ethical issues of the mining industry.

Power to the consumer

In the face of corporate apathy towards these issues, it seems that any improvements to the ethics of technology must largely be consumer driven. Faced with the unsettling knowledge of how our devices are produced, it could be time to ask ourselves some serious questions. For a start, we should reconsider our desire to get hold of every shiny new piece of gadgetry regardless of the human cost. If technology users take a stand against the consumerist, buy-it-now attitudes pushed upon them by tech companies, then we might have a chance. Responsibly sourced products are out there, but it takes a heightened level of consumer concern to engage with them over their flashy rivals. That being said, given the built in obsolescence that governs the production of many standard tech devices, choosing an ethical alternative could also mean that consumers end up with more money in their pockets in the long run.

Ultimately, both corporate and consumer attitudes towards the manufacture of technology must change in order to secure a sustainable and ethical future for us all. This will be difficult, but it is not impossible. Consider, for example, the potential transformation of ethical goods into status symbols. Social influencers might one day change the tone of their posts from ‘look at the luxury gadgets I can afford’ to ‘look how sustainable I can be.’ Ethical devices: clear conscience.

Is Apple’s drive to buy cobalt directly from the mine driven by business or ethics? Should ethical decisions ever trump business concerns? How can we balance the value of technology against the human cost of its production? Comment below with your thoughts and opinions.

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