It’s not beyond the realms of imagination to say that on 10th March 1876, in a small electrics shop in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the bloodiest conflicts in African history received a significant boost.
On that day, Alexander Graham Bell said “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.” In the next room Thomas Watson heard these words through the magic of the telephone.
Nearly 100 years later, on June 30th 1960, The Republic of Congo gained independence from Belgium and a long tussle over its mineral wealth began. This has been especially intense in the past decade, with over 3 million people lost as a result.
What links the two events are four elements: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. These are found in rich deposits in the east of the country where the fighting is at its most intense. They’re also key elements in mobile phone handsets.
There is no co-incidence here. Congolese rebels are encamped on the deposits precisely because they can sell them for money and arms.
Corporate mobile phones are, quite literally, fuelling a war.
The Difficulties of International CSR
CSR has taken many twists and turns through the last decade or so, passing through environment, health and safety, child labour and a host of other concerns on the way.
Right now, everyone’s deeply worried about climate change, and rightly so.
A piecemeal approach has evolved to tackle these issues. It relies on all companies applying comparable standards within their own individual domain, engendering a sense of confidence that those standards are being maintained across the board.
This is progress insofar as it goes and it works very well when all the companies involved are operating under the same legislative umbrella.
However in a multinational context it doesn’t work: legislation, morals and ethics will (and should) always be different. And so will standards.
Big Failures Across Industry
from “Squibs of California, Or, Every-day Life Illustrated”
by Palmer Cox, pub.1874
Yet because most of the actual manufacturing is subcontracted to factories on the other side of the world, standards are notoriously difficult to enforce and auditing can be fairly easily fixed.
A staggering 90% of EICC signatories say working hours in their supply chain are a problem. One factory was found to be operating two 12-hour shifts seven days a week, with each shift including two half hour breaks. That’s a 77 hour working week.
It’s not just the electronics industry which is plagued by such revelations. In the fashion industry there are persistent issues with child labour and in Holland a new “Child Labour Free” fashion shop has recently opened.
Then there was the spectacular news that a leading international bank had invested in a landmine manufacturer, despite having a clear “no landmines” clause in its investment policy.
The Sharp End Of CSR
Within the CSR movement there is a fundamental message which is gradually becoming engrained into every branch of corporate life: every one of your decisions affects someone somewhere, possibly more than you could ever know.
To date the piecemeal approach has meant companies have only looked at their own communities and suppliers, considering that to be satisfactory.
It’s now time to take this a step further. CSR companies need to look not just at their suppliers and their local communities, but also their suppliers’ suppliers, and their communities.
A healthy market is one where commercial pressure is brought to bear. Faced with the discovery they’d just bought raw materials gained through murder or extortion, most company directors would cancel the contract immediately.
Why should it be any different for mobile phone handsets and computer keyboards, just because the murder and extortion is happening a few steps away?
Active companies who see no further than their own corporate battlements will not help to establish a responsible business model across the commercial world.
We need activist companies, who will join up the dots and take responsibility for every effect their actions have, no matter where that is or how many steps removed.
Picture Credits: Bakalov-mobile-phone-explosion-cc-by-sa-4032x2996px by christo.bakalov under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License; Shifting A Responsibility by indiamos under Creative Commons Attribution License. Both from flickr.
Latest posts by Chris Milton (see all)
- Which CSR meaning floats your boat? - March 4, 2013
- Five levels of corporate citizenship - February 28, 2013
- Crucially Crucell | CSR Website review - February 26, 2013
- Seven Best Practices for Sustainability Websites | Part 2/2 - February 19, 2013
- Seven Best Practices for Sustainability Websites | Part 1/2 - February 14, 2013