Where does cobalt used in smartphone batteries come from?

Cobalt is the most expensive raw material used for building lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are used in smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles. In the past year, the price of refined cobalt has been above $20k. Also, in the past 5 years the demand for this element from the battery sector has tripled and is projected to double again by 2020.

An article from The Washington Post titled The Cobalt Pipeline1 mentions that 60% of the world’s supply is originated in Congo. The Washington Post traced the cobalt pipeline and showed that the element is used in popular consumer products. The way how this works is that cobalt is extracted in small mines in Congo including artisanal operations. Cobalt is then sold to a company in China who has been supplying in the past years the largest battery makers in the world. Some of the batteries made with this cobalt are the ones we find on iPhones.

So why is this a relevant topic? The first reason is because of the harsh labor conditions that exist in the extraction step of the cobalt pipeline. The following quote from The Cobalt Pipeline article captures the working conditions:

“An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say.”

The second reason why this topic is relevant is because of the child labor used in cobalt mining. According to an article from The Guardian2, children as young as seven years old work in mining of cobalt used in smartphones. Amnesty International conducted interviews to children and found out that some of them were working up to 12 hours a day on harsh conditions to earn up to two dollars per day3. According to an article from UNICEF4, an estimated 40,000 children work in mines in the south of Congo. The harsh labor conditions that children work in are captured on the following extract from the article referenced from The Guardian:

“The report (from Amnesty International) says that child miners as young as seven carried back-breaking loads and worked in intense heat for between one or two dollars a day without face masks or gloves. Several children said they had been beaten by security guards employed by mining companies and forced to pay “fines” by unauthorised mines police sent by state officials to extort money and intimidate workers.

The media has focused some attention on this problem, including pointing fingers at companies that offer lithium-ion batteries in their products. An article from BBC5 published earlier this year focused on the human rights accusations being received by Apple, Samsung, Sony, and others. This has generated some reactions from the these companies. The following are some of the reactions we are seeing:

  • Apple: A senior director in charge of social responsibility in the supply-chain mentioned that the company is planning to inspect how all of the cobalt used on their products is obtained. They have shown commitment to work with their cobalt supplier to address issues in the supply chain such as harsh labor conditions and child labor
  • LG Chem (leading battery maker): They mentioned that they stopped buying minerals from Congo last year.
  • Samsung SDI (large battery maker): They are conducting an investigation to ensure that they don’t use cobalt mined in Congo

Will these companies stop sourcing cobalt from irresponsible sources? Will they manage to transform the working conditions at the source? Will demand for the end products decrease?

Sources

1 “The Cobalt Pipeline”, The Washington Post, September 30th 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/

2 “Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, says Amnesty”, The Guardian, January 18th 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jan/19/children-as-young-as-seven-mining-cobalt-for-use-in-smartphones-says-amnesty

3 “Exposed: Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries”, Amnesty International, January 19th 2016. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/01/child-labour-behind-smart-phone-and-electric-car-batteries/

4 “In DR Congo, UNICEF supports efforts to help child labourers return to school”, UNICEF, June 30th, 2012. http://www.unicef.org/childsurvival/drcongo_62627.html

5 “Apple, Samsung and Sony face child labour claims”, BBC, January 19th 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35311456