European makers of smartphones, LEDs and electric cars have formed an alliance to improve conditions in cobalt mines and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The founding members of the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) include Dutch phone maker Fairphone, Philips LED lighting spinoff Signify, German EV Sono Motors and miners Huayou Cobalt and Glencore. They have been joined by the Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI) and German powerbank hirer Lifesaver.
The FCA is set up to work with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government and civil society partners to tackle problems in the cobalt supply chain linked to artisanal and small scale mining (ASM), such as poor working conditions and child labour, and build a source of responsible cobalt.
The Alliance aims to work towards child-labour free mines by supporting operators in establishing credible control and monitoring mechanisms to keep children out of the mines and support the enrolment of children into school, allowing children and youth access to education and vocational training.
Cobalt is a key mineral in battery production and the DRC has the largest reserves and mines in the world, although there is also significant production in Russia, Australia and the Philippines. Around 70 percent of production in the DRC is from large mines, but around 11 percent comes from smaller artisanal and small scale mining (ASM).
Battery makers, particularly for electric vehicles, are also working on low-cobalt and zero cobalt cells. Earlier this year a report form the United Nations highlighted the risks of cobalt production for global electronics, and companies such as BMW have been working to ensure a fair supply chain.
“The security of cobalt supply chains is more important than ever as our need for this highly relevant mineral in the new digital economy becomes evident. Where we find environmental, social or labour problems in supply chains, we should not avoid them, we should not disengage, but rather it is our duty to take action and make improvements,” said Dr Assheton Stewart Carter, Executive Director of The Impact Facility and the Fair Cobalt Alliance. “The Fair Cobalt Alliance is a bold move to do just that – to bring about systemic change by working with the local partners and engaging all businesses in the supply chain to achieve a common goal.”
The FCA was set up by Fairphone with Signify and supplier Huayou Cobalt, as well as The Impact Facility, an organisation designed to convene supply chains to enable diversification of mining economies.
The initiative connects cobalt from Lualaba Province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the global electronics and automotive supply chains alongside existing operations. The Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI) is a programme established by Chinese refining and mining companies active in the DRC to tackle risks facing workers at artisanal mines in the cobalt supply chain.
Knowledge and development organisations, amongst them Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and Congolese civil society, including the Centre Arrupe pour la Recherche et la Formation (CARF) are also actively supporting and participating in the initiative. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, implemented by The Netherlands Enterprise Agency, contributes to the alliance through a multi-year grant.
Full implementation will take five years and will start in mines located in Kasulu and Kamilombe in the DRC, with the ambition to scale to more mines.
“Millions of livelihoods in the DRC and around the world depend on ASM. The OECD encourages industry to responsibly engage with the sector through progressive improvement instead of avoiding it, which often only makes problems in ASM more hidden,” said Benjamin Katz Policy Analyst at the OECD. “We fully support the Fair Cobalt Alliance’s goal of investing in better working conditions for ASM, and other similar projects, in order to bring more transparency to the sector while expanding market access for small-scale producers.”
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