Samsung 1 - 0 Apple

Julian Kirby

23 April 2013

We’ve done it! It took more than 15,000 emails from customers, hundreds of tweets, a kick-about with Samsung-sponsored Chelsea Football Club and a little decoration of the front drive of its European HQ in Surrey. At last though, we’ve persuaded the world’s biggest-selling smartphone brand to publically acknowledge that its products do contain tin from the dangerous, forest-trashing and coral-killing mines on and around Bangka Island in Indonesia. Samsung says it will use its influence to address the horrendous mortality rate among independent miners and environmental destruction associated with the mining.

And its arch-rival Apple? Still silence. Since November our Make It Better campaign has been calling on both companies to answer the same question – do your products contain tin from Bangka? But only Samsung has responded to concerned customers’ queries. Seems it’s not just in the smartphone sales stakes that Samsung is pulling ahead.

Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest information technology company so persuading it to ‘fess up is no mean feat.  To be fair, confirming where your raw materials come from can be tricky when it’s probably not even your suppliers, but your suppliers’ suppliers, who actually buy the stuff.  Companies constantly complain that mined commodities like tin are extremely difficult to track an audit trail for.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, and can’t, be done. The same arguments were used for wood and paper, palm oil, cotton and so on and on. But in each of these cases, and often following public pressure to do so, companies began establishing a clear paper chain from farm to factory or mine to manufacturer. In so doing they injected necessary transparency into their supply chains. And now Fair Phone is doing the same thing in the electronics sector too, tracing back to the mine to ensure the metals and minerals they use are mined safely.

So we should tip a hat to Samsung for responding to pressure from customers to throw those curtains wide and shine a little light on the shadier corners of its supply chain. And while the proof is in the pudding, it’s also good it’s committing to help stop the destruction on Bangka.

We’re also encouraging Samsung both to commit to real action to address the problems on Bangka and to look beyond tin and Bangka to other similar problems in their supply chains. Our much loved gadgets and gizmos  contain gold, tungsten, coltan, silver, aluminium, rare earths, scores of complex compounds, you name it. And of course all the plastics, card, paper and whatnot that go into packaging. Each has an impact on communities and the natural world. Some of these impacts are vast, horrific and well documented such as the conflict mines of the DRC; others increasingly familiar such as the tin mines of Bangka; still others yet to enter the public consciousness as inevitably they will.

Public disclosure is important because it means the company selling you something knows there can be no temptation to fob you off with something else. If it says ‘beef’ on the label why should you have to worry there might be some other animal in your burger? But it’s also about companies properly understanding their supply chains, in terms not just of potential risks to profits and reputation, but also the impacts that goods and production systems have on people and planet.

Collecting information on those impacts, including how much land or water is required at each stage of production, means companies can design their products and wider business models to reduce those impacts. Offering longer warranties, for example, could extend the lifespan of some products so they don’t have to be replaced as often. Better design for upgrade, refurbishment and, last resort, recycling, would reduce the demand for raw materials in the first place. By loaning rather than selling goods companies could get back valuable materials to reuse again.

That’s where industry leaders like Samsung should be going. And it’s where, if the South Korean company has the will, it’s already heading by identifying the source of its tin. It’s also why it should support calls for a more robust, standardised system of ‘non-financial reporting’ than that just proposed by the European Commission, which will require large companies to report on a range of environmental and social factors. If Samsung really wants to be seen as a company that cares for the people and wildlife affected by how it does business then that should be a no-brainer.

So well done and thank you to everyone who helped persuade Samsung to take an early step on that journey. And well done Samsung for going public so we can see you’re committed to real action.

Apple – you’re not going to get left behind on this one as well are you?


You can read more about Samsung's action and Apple's silence here.


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