A recent legal case launched against tech giants has renewed concerns over cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

On December 17 2019, human rights firm International Rights Advocates (IRAdvocates) launched a legal case against Microsoft and Apple. The case concerned alleged mining deaths and injuries of children in the DRC.

The case, filed the case on behalf of 14 Congolese families who are guardians of children killed or seriously injured. It has reaffirmed the concerns surrounding mining in the DRC.  A campaign carried out by Amnesty International found that around 40,000 children, some as young as four years old, are working as artisan miners in the country.

The complaint claims that the firms ‘are knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children’, through the use of suppliers such as Glencore and Umicore.

Pressure is mounting against those using cobalt

Consumers have become increasingly aware of the human rights abuses taking place in the DRC, as the demand for the metal has grown.

As most of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the DRC, global demand for it is expected to increase at 7% to 13% per annum over the next few years. This according to a 2018 study by the European Commission.

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By GlobalData

Cobalt is a key component in the lithium-ion batteries that power electronic devices such as laptops, PCs and smartphones and electric cars.

Some companies have already begun to taken action. Ford, IBM, LG Chem and Huayou Cobalt teamed up to launch a block chain project to track supplies from the DRC. Volkswagen and Volvo have also teamed up with the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance. The alliance works to find solutions for sustainable cobalt mining.

Other options must be explored

In order to combat the ethical concerns regarding cobalt mining in the DRC, companies must attempt to source the metal from responsible sources.

US companies hope that cobalt produced domestically will help speed up government approval for mining plans. This will set their product apart from overseas competitors. US company Missouri Cobalt has plans to start producing cobalt from an old lead mine, which has around 35 million pounds of recoverable metal. The full operation, once completed in 2020, will include on-site processing.

Although the DRC and China will remain dominant in the metal, US firms may find they are able to command higher prices due to ethical concerns. However, production outside of China and DRC is tiny compared to global demand.