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The real cost of modern technology

In November 2011, a conversation between Apple CEO Tim Cook and popstar Dua Lipa went viral. What a dystopian experience it was, as a Congolese person, to watch the reentry of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) issues into the mainstream news cycle through Dua Lipa questioning the use of child labor in Congolese mines, where Apple sourced minerals for their technology products. Social media played the clip repeatedly, and the conversation turned to Dua’s bravery rather than the validity of Cook’s words. As technology advances, it is essential not to go backward, turning a blind eye to suffering in the name of sustainability. 

During the last few months of 2023, activists took to social media platforms to mobilize support for a ceasefire and relief of humanitarian crises in response to the war in Gaza; this brought attention to other humanitarian crises happening elsewhere as well, which thrust the Democratic Republic of Congo into the spotlight. The DRC has been reputed throughout modern history as being perpetually in crisis since its independence in 1960. The grotesquely corrupt leadership and the exploitation of its natural resources led to war, which has resulted in the death and displacement of millions. During the late 90s and early 2000s, Congolese citizens were victims of torture, sexual violence and forced labor, which acted as weapons in the wars that the DRC fought internally and externally. These forces, including Congo’s corrupt leaders, were determined to profit off the minerals in this region at the expense of innocent Congolese people. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, climate change and its consequences were starting to be seen as a real issue, and solutions needed to be developed. Then came the development of the lithium-ion battery. These batteries were the perfect replacement for traditional sustainable batteries. They were “lighter and packed more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries. The production of lithium-ion batteries requires cobalt, an abundant mineral in the DRC. Lithium-ion batteries help produce all types of technologies (cars, cell phones, laptops, etc.). In 2021, General Motors started to phase out vehicles solely dependent on fuel. Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, is one of the most valuable companies in the world. Cobalt is necessary for producing electric and hybrid vehicles, so the demand has increased. 

The use of minerals sourced in the DRC  in technology is not new, but it is particularly relevant in the case of making “more sustainable” technology. Is something sustainable if it comes at the cost of human suffering? Ultimately, sustainability that comes with other groups’ suffering is not true sustainability. 

In 2019, the International Rights Advocate helped 11 families sue Apple, Tesla, Google, Microsoft and Dell for using minerals from the DRC that were sourced from mining companies that “trafficked and forced child labor in the cobalt mines.” These families had children who died or were severely injured from working in these mines. Although the plaintiffs

lost , it was a first step toward holding companies responsible for taking advantage of the DRC’s crises for gain. (This case is currently being appealed.) After this, renouncing child labor and poor working conditions became prevalent on these companies’ websites. 

Apple, for example, distanced itself from the issues of child mining and inhumane working conditions that are prevalent in DRC mining regions. In his interview, Tim Cook seemed surprised at Dua’s question but confidently addressed the recent accusations, denying that children mine tin, cobalt and other materials that make Apple technology. He insists that “our objective over time is to take nothing from the earth to make our products.” 

Cook claimed that Apple depends on recycled materials (“gold, tin, tungsten, and other rare-earth materials”). For the products that require mining, there is an “intense level of tracing in our supply chain all the way back to the mine and the smelter to ensure that the labor used is not child labor.” 

A common thread of Cook’s statements is concern with the DRC’s political climate. In a document posted on their website titled “People and Environment in Our Supply Chain”, Apple boasts that “in the more than 50 countries and regions where our suppliers operate, [they] have teams of experts, including independent third parties, who monitor [their] suppliers and put in place industry-leading procedures to help verify that no one is forced to work.” 

Glencore, a prominent mineral supplier, echoes the statement by claiming that it provided opportunities to those communities: schools to reduce child labor, an anonymous hotline to report poor working conditions, and opportunities for people in the communities where they mine minerals. 

However, this is the same company that, to this day, continues to harm Congolese citizens and perpetuate violence in the DRC. Last year, it was reported that “people are being forcibly evicted, or threatened or intimidated into leaving their homes, or misled into consenting to derisory settlements. Often, there was no grievance mechanism, accountability, or access to justice.” This threat often comes with the threat of physical and sexual violence to the victims, enforced by local corrupt militia. 

To any researcher who is only now familiar with the history of the DRC, the issues seem to have been resolved, especially when coupled with Tim Cook’s sentiments in that interview. As a Congolese person, I know this to be far from the truth. 

As the “explore” pages of our social media collectively return to normal, millions of people’s lives are changing drastically, and not for the better. The typical ending of this story is that the perpetrators will get away with their crimes. However, it only takes digging deeper into people’s stories and genuinely listening to victims to discover the incongruity of corporations’ commitment to sustainability, contradicting their human rights violations.

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