Do you remember using your mum and dad’s landline? Do you remember a world before iPhones? I do. Apple launched its now ubiquitous smart phone back in 2007 and I didn’t get one until 2010. Today many people own an iPhone and those who don’t are very likely to have another brand of smartphone.
They have become the fastest-selling gadget in history, outselling the growth of personal computers four to one. Ericsson’s 2015 Mobility Report found that at least half of the adult population owns one and by 2020 around 70 per cent will, that’s 6.1 billion people.
According to the International Data Corporation 341.5 million smartphones were shipped out into the hands of users in 2015. With Samsung holding the biggest share of the market and Apple coming in at a close second.
We use our phones for everything now –making dinner plans, finding love, hailing an Uber and tracking how many steps we have taken in a day. Who knows, at this rate, maybe one day our phones will be cooking our dinner for us.
For all the convenience that smartphones have brought us, for all the ways in which they have revolutionised the ways in which we do business and have relationships, there are downsides that many of the billions of people who own them doubtless aren’t aware of. Have you ever thought about where your smartphone comes from? Beyond the neat little box it arrives in? Beyond that upgrade chat with your mobile phone provider? Even beyond the factory it’s put together in?
Have you ever questioned what it’s made out of and where those materials come from? Perhaps it’s time you did.
The mineral colbat is a vital component of lithium-ion batteries which power many smartphones. The ‘copper belt’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia yields most of the cobalt which is mined worldwide.
In a report into cobalt mining in the DRC Amnesty has found that children as young as seven are working in what they consider to be dangerous conditions. All of the firms involved have said that they have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to child labour. Mark Dummett, Business & Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International, said ‘the glamourous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage.’
He also pointed out that ‘millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.’
According to Amnesty at least 80 miners died underground in southern DRC between September 2014 and December 2015. Children told the charity that they had worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads to earn between one and two dollars a day.
Children also do things like scavenging for ore and sorting minerals above ground, activities that can still be dangerous. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 40,000 children working in mines across the south of the country.
The report specifically looks into how cobalt traders buy the mineral from areas where child labour is rife and sell it to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a subsidiary which is owned by the Chinese mineral company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt). This company, according to Amnesty, then process and sell the cobalt on to battery manufacturers in China and South Korea. From there, they claim, it is supplied to various companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony.
You might not think about the crucial component that your phone can’t function without every time you swipe right on Tinder or send a meme to your group WhatsApp. Some people have been conscious of this for a while, though.
The Fairphone is an ethical smartphone. It is manufactured by a social enterprise based in Amsterdam. The company who makes it works directly with suppliers to trace material back to conflict-free mines.
Fairphones aren’t cheap, however. But perhaps one day all smartphones will be ethical. There’s an irony in the fact that the super advanced piece of technology in your pocket, which facilitates your existence in a digital world where you don’t often get your hands dirty, wouldn’t exist without deep mines in another country where people work to harness natural resources.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.