Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (http://www.firstsustainable.com), a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bloody Tin


Thanks to a phasing-out of lead in electronic components, the global tin trade has exploded over the last few years. Cassiterite, the ore that contains the metal, is found in abundance in sub-saharan Africa. Ten percent of the world's tin originates in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is mined by slave labor in dangerous conditions. Children often haul sacks of the rocks for days to get to market, where once there, the price is negotiated at gunpoint.

Yet, in a recent Fortune article, executives at large electronics makers such as Samsung had no idea from where the tin originated, and they certainly were not aware that slave-labor is involved in producing it. The typical refrain was spouted: how tin is a global commodity, fungible in its nature, the source easily disguised. What can we (the companies) do about it?

Over the years, industry has responded to pressure from socially responsible investors when it comes to cleaning up the suppy chain. Nike and other apparel makers were shamed into cleaning up their acts with respect to child and sweatshop labor. Many brands of coffee are now certified as "fair trade", whereby farmers get paid a higher than market rate for their beans so that a minimum standard of living can be guaranteed. An infrastructure (albeit imperfect) has been put in place to curb the trade in "conflict diamonds." Setting up a similar infrastructure for the tin trade can also be achieved, with the help of the U.N. and other NGO's.

The data can be compiled. The Fortune article, for example, cited how neighboring Rwanda exported five times more Cassiterite than it produced while showing no imports. It does not take a slide ruler to figure that ill-gotten tin is being smuggled to its neighbors, where they are then shipped to Maylaysia and China. We have the means and the know-how, but lack the will thus far.

I am ashamed to admit that I was generally unaware of this problem, while being acutely aware of the sweat shop, fair trade, and conflict diamonds issues. Could it be that the global tin trade is less sexy than coffee, diamonds, and little children assembling soccer balls?

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