Intel Corporation, a giant U.S.-based manufacturer of computer components, believes it has found a way to stop inadvertently financing violent militia groups in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. If the company has, indeed, solved this problem, its method may help Canadian clothing manufacturers desist from supporting homicidal sweatshops in Bangladesh.
In both cases, the difficulty lies in knowing what supplier you are really dealing with. Intel, like other makers of microchips, uses large volumes of gold, tungsten, tin and tantalum. Much of this is mined in the eastern Congo, and some of the mines are controlled by armed militias such as the FDLR (Rwandan expatriates) and militias related to the Congolese national army. When Intel, or another purchaser, buys the mineral from a smelter, it is hard to know whether the ultimate supplier was a brutal armed gang or a peaceful group of backcountry miners.
Intel has been working on this problem for many years. It was unwilling to cut off all Congolese suppliers for fear of sabotaging economic development of that large African republic. But the firm has visited 70 smelting firms to seek their co-operation in excluding "conflict minerals" from its supply chain. Last month, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the firm announced all its products from now on will be certifiably free of conflict minerals.
That may not be the end of the story. One slab of tantalum looks pretty much like another. Even if the smelter obtained the material from a highly respectable supplier, it may not always be clear, in the murky conditions of eastern Congo, what role the uniformed bandits may have played. But Intel has at least acknowledged the problem and is trying to deal with it.
Canadian clothing brands need to make a corresponding effort to find out who their suppliers are in the clothing factories of Bangladesh. After at least 1,129 workers died in the April 2013 collapse of the Dhaka's Rana Plaza textile complex, Canadians hoped for improvements in the working conditions in which their clothing is made. When another 100 died in a November fire at another multi-storey garment factory near Dhaka, it was clear progress was not yet being achieved. Part of the problem is the Canadian importer cannot be perfectly certain where the apparel he ordered is being made.
Clothing importers should keep a close eye on Intel's efforts and see if the chipmaker has found a good way of supporting Third World development and not Third World criminality.