Earlier this week, six U.S. tech companies were named in a lawsuit that accuses them of endangering the lives of child laborers in the mining of cobalt for their products. Child labor is frequently used in mining for cobalt, and several children have been maimed or killed in pursuit of this element.
Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries, the ones that power every laptop, smartphone, pair of wireless headphones and tablet out there. It’s rare; most of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the rest mostly from China. The lawsuit, the first of its kind, names Apple, Google parent company Alphabet, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla.
In “Quality Assurance,” the Friday segment where we take a deeper look at a big tech story, I spoke with Roger Cheng, an executive editor and head of CNET News, which reported on the story. He told me a lawsuit like this raises awareness. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Roger Cheng: This is the first time that tech companies have been on the hook for this. There have been a number of reports about the human rights violations, child labor conducted by these cobalt copper mines, most of which are in the Congo. This really brings back to the forefront the issue of whether or not there are human rights violations going on.
Molly Wood: For those who don’t know, tell us how crucial is cobalt to the tech products these companies make, and how hard is it to find?
Cheng: That’s really the critical problem that industry faces is the fact that cobalt is one of the most important ingredients in making a lithium-ion battery. Cobalt is a substance that actually helps stabilize and make batteries safer — keeping them from overheating — they’re absolutely important. Part of the problem is that there really is only a handful of suppliers, and the Democratic Republic of Congo supplies roughly 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt. In terms of refined cobalt, the vast majority of that is supplied by China. This is an issue for companies like Apple, this is an issue for companies like Tesla, which obviously invest a lot in big batteries for their cars.
Wood: What do you think it would take for tech companies to change this practice in some way or invest more heavily in different kinds of battery technology?
Cheng: I think that’s what’s happening now. You see companies like Panasonic invest in research into batteries that don’t use cobalt. Elon Musk has teased that the next generation of cars would use batteries that reduce the percentage of cobalt in the batteries. It’s a tricky balance, because if they want to reduce the amount of cobalt, they have to use more nickel. It doesn’t recharge as well, it’s more prone to overheating. That’s the big dilemma. Cobalt is such a valuable part of the battery that reducing the reliance on it is really difficult. Battery technology moves extremely slowly, and finding a way to create a battery or power source that isn’t reliant on cobalt at all could be years away. Panasonic has talked about it, but it’s unclear whether or not that company, or any other company, is close to a breakthrough to a point where you can make batteries that are widely adopted. It just takes a really long time.
Wood: Would it take consumer pressure to move the needle at all, either on that research or any other change?
Cheng: Consumer pressure would help, for sure. I think if there is more public outcry, if there’s more of an outcry from the government, if there’s more criticism, that might spark things, but research like this takes a while. Beyond just the research, batteries right now, they rely on the fact that they’re relatively standard. We all live on lithium ion — our standard AAA and AA batteries, they’ve been around for a really long time — and they work because they’re universally accepted. To create a new battery technology and get that into the whole ecosystem of products, that’s really difficult. That takes a long time, just from a market perspective. It’s not like consumer pressure or any pressure really can speed that process up.
Wood: Let’s circle back a little bit more explicitly about how the supply chain works and why this is somewhat invisible. Apple has even said, “We’ve tried to make sure that we’re not working with suppliers who are using child labor, but it’s hard to keep track.” How does that happen?
Cheng: Part of it is because the cobalt is, again, it’s mined, it’s raw material, it gets refined, it gets shipped off to another company that then basically uses it as part of a component, and then it gets sent off to another. Basically, they’re multiple steps to the chain before it even gets to the lithium-ion battery part. I think that’s the issue, tracking it down and actually reverse engineering how it all came to be. It’s in a region that isn’t very transparent, so tracking this all down and making sure that the suppliers you use all meet your standards is a difficult thing. Like I said, to Apple’s credit, they’ve definitely tried, and they’ve been among the most transparent, but they’re alone in that. If you notice, some of these other companies haven’t really responded. They’ve denied any knowledge of it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not happening.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
Please read this piece in Digital Trends about the human cost of cobalt mining. It also talks about a company based in the Netherlands that has created the Fairphone, a device made only with fair trade materials that are responsibly sourced, suggesting that it can be done if the will and the financial investment is there.
May I suggest, U.S. tech companies, the blockchain. A cobalt producer called Glencore PLC, one of the largest in the world, said it will join the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network that uses the blockchain to trace the history of all the cobalt it sources and refines to ensure that it comes from ethical sources that are also environmentally responsible. Ford, Volkswagen and Volvo are also members.
The blockchain network is still in production. It’s built on IBM technology and hopes to sign up more big consumer electronics companies, along with mining, aerospace and more automakers. So far, it doesn’t sound like any of the tech companies mentioned in the lawsuit are on board. IBM is also apparently working on new battery technology that would not include cobalt but would instead be made with materials extracted from seawater. There is a solution out there that doesn’t involve letting kids die in mines. We should demand that our gadget makers find it.