A thick irony hangs over me as I write about fair trade on a mint 13″ MacBook Pro, glancing every now and then at my iPhone 5 for unread messages.

It hangs over me because, courtesy of a vastly interconnected global marketplace, the shiny surfaces of our electronic devices may very well reflect their part in fuelling civil war, sexual violence and exploitation. The gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten (“3TG”) inside them that make it possible for our frantic finger-swipes to text loved ones, update statuses and crush candies are often sourced from conflict zones or environmentally desecrated wastelands, then assembled by underpaid workers in back-breaking conditions.

A street artist’s criticism of Apple’s use of conflict minerals

The truth is, 100% fair trade electronics don’t exist yet. Murky supply chains make it easy to ignore how our collective demand for them can trample over the basic rights of people invisible to us, but whose livelihoods are tied to our every consumerist whim.

 

The Impossible Choice

Knowing this, we seem to be faced with two equally unsavoury choices.

Option 1: Go the way of the freewheeling hippie, and renounce our nefarious ties to capitalism. Dump every gadget we own. March naked (Rana Plaza, anyone?) for fair trade electronics. Screw the system.

Option 2: Shrug our shoulders and accept that “it is the way it is”. We need our phones, laptops and tablets to function. To communicate, to organise our time and to work. To do our lives. Besides, we use technology to accomplish a lot of good too. Ignore mode: On.

The first option is unworkable for all but professional cavemen. Boycotting also tends to be counterproductive. The second option is unsatisfying. And it’s unsatisfying because most of us are decent enough to feel the slightest tinge of discomfort, if not guilt, at the thought of our devices being bought with blood.

In sum, we can’t live without our electronics, yet can’t quite put our consciences at ease. It’s a paradox over which consumers remain royally stuck and workers of the world, well, royally screwed.

 

The Middle Ground

There is a third option that suggests we should demand fair trade and enjoy the benefits of smart devices. But those who take this middle ground are often shot down for doing so (yours truly included): “Waving your conflict-mineral device around while wishing for fair trade smacks of hypocrisy. Your mouth says one thing, and your wallet says another.” Right?

Wrong. My fellow smartphoneophiles, we can champion fair trade without taking a trip down Hypocrite Lane.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the electronics industry has made tremendous progress on ethical conduct in recent years. A diehard Mac user, I was surprised to discover that Apple has one of the better records on workers’ rights compared to other brands, becoming the first tech company to join the Fair Labor Association and submit to regular factory audits. Li Qiang, the founder of China Labor Watch, uses an iPhone himself – not as an endorsement of Apple’s policies, but as a nod to the fact that it’s one of the best of a bad bunch.

Not only have Apple’s tantalum suppliers been confirmed as conflict-free by external auditors (to be taken with a pinch of salt), but they also began publishing a Quarterly Smelters List to allow the public to scrutinise which of its suppliers may still be sourcing conflict minerals. Where an industry leader like Apple goes, so too will the rest of the tech giants follow. Much remains to be done, but the shift towards fair trade electronics is unmistakable.

Secondly, these changes have come about partly because awareness spread to consumers like you and me via the very technology in question. Those consumers then made some noise. Sure, signing an online petition, emailing CEOs or bombing a company’s Facebook page doesn’t seem like much. But there are millions of you and millions of me. Experience shows that companies respond to a united groundswell of concern from customers about the integrity of their supply chains. Say what you will about slacktivism, but it often plays a critical role in rousing the attention of media, corporate social responsibility officers and government regulators.

On this point, I take my cue from Bandi Mbubi, an activist who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where conflict minerals have wreaked havoc on his fellow citizens. Instead of telling us to throw away our smartphones, he urges us instead to use them to raise awareness of the issue and demand fair trade phones. What’s more, activists on the ground envision a future where exploited workers themselves use mobile phones to crowd-source reports on corrupt labour practices.

Tin and tantalum supply and production routes © Fairphone

Tin and tantalum supply and production routes © Fairphone

Thirdly, there are exciting new players on the scene who are aiming to make 100% fair trade electronics a reality. Take Fairphone, for example. Building on technology developed by Apple and Samsung, they are pioneering the production of a conflict-free smartphone while being as brutally honest about their supply chain as possible. Fairphone’s receptiveness to consumers’ ethical concerns is clearly winning people over. Admirably, they seek out conflict-free suppliers of tin and tantalum in the DRC, recognising the fact that simply pulling out of an area where people desperately need legitimate employment does more harm than good.

At the very least, snowballing consumer support for ethical alternatives will increase pressure on the big dogs to clean up their own acts. As smartphone-wielding consumers, what we throw our support behind matters a lot in a cut-throat tech industry.

 

The Bottom Line

As was mentioned before, 100% fair trade electronics don’t exist yet. But they are coming to a future near you. How soon they arrive depends on consumers like us adding our voices to the crescendoing call for companies to make good on their ethical commitments.

So let’s channel our finger swipes into sharing posts about fair trade, and monitoring our favourite brands as they conflict-proof their supply chains. Let’s screen-tap away to rave about promising fair trade experiments like Fairphone in our social media spheres. #let’s #go #fairtrade #hashtag #crazy

And let’s take comfort in the knowledge that using our existing smartphones and tablets to do all of that does not a hypocrite make.

Fiona is an impulsive collector of moments. People, places and their stories fascinate her. Having lived, worked and/or travelled on every continent except Antarctica before breathing the last of her first quarter century, she is now chasing the tails of a law degree, some ethereal notion of justice and, above all, the words to make sense of it all.

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