Used since ancient times for its pigment, cobalt is now an essential ingredient in aircraft manufacture. But how ethical is the process of mining this precious metal?
The ethical issues behind cobalt mines
Cobalt is one of those magic ingredients that we may not often think about, but use every day. It is found in the rechargeable batteries needed to power everything from iPhones to electric cars, but it is also used in superalloys, which are valuable because of their resistance to high temperatures and corrosion. Cobalt, therefore, finds its way into aircraft engines. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the principal supplier. In 2017 around 67 per cent of the world’s cobalt was mined there, according to Darton Commodities. Many of the mines are unmechanised, so work is done by hand – and those hands can be children’s. So it’s worth asking, where does the cobalt used in engines come from?
Aircraft makers, it seems, are not the right people to ask. Boeing did not respond to requests for information. Airbus did, but only to direct us to the engine makers themselves. Catherine Malek, head of corporate media relations at the French aircraftequipment maker Safran, replied that direct suppliers must sign a charter that forbids forced or child labour. Safran, she wrote, does not buy cobalt directly, only in alloy form. Nevertheless it is still in the engine. So where does it come from?
Jenny Dervin, of US aerospace manufacturer Pratt and Whitney, also said that the company “does not purchase raw cobalt, but some engine parts, and some alloys used to manufacture engine parts, include cobalt. We do not require that suppliers report the origin of the cobalt that they may use in the manufacturing process.” Though, she added: “Suppliers are required to comply with a code of conduct that bans child or forced labour.”
Rolls-Royce commented that the company “fully supports the principles of regulations that promote socially responsible sourcing of minerals. We request our suppliers to only provide us with raw materials, components and subassemblies derived from responsibly sourced minerals that can be certified in accordance with OECD guidelines.” Again, responsibility is deferred elsewhere.
Bady Balde, Africa director at the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in Oslo, points out that OECD guidelines alone are not enough. “There is partial information on small-scale miners’ level of compliance with the OECD’s due diligence guidelines,” he says, “but this information is not sufficient to certify all cobalt producers in the DRC. It’s almost impossible to be sure that a mineral produced from the DRC is free from child labour.”
Perry Bradley, director of media relations at GE Aviation, referred me to the Aerospace Industries Association: “It is best positioned to talk about how the industry thinking is evolving on this issue.” The question, though, was not about industry thinking, but cobalt...
“GE Aviation is actively involved in an aerospace industry-wide effort regarding
These companies either don’t know or don’t want to say where a specific supply of cobalt comes from
conflict minerals, including cobalt, under the auspices of the Aerospace Industries Association,” Bradley said. “In addition, GE is strongly committed to support conflict mineral initiatives and proactively involved and engaged with the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), including a working group focused on the responsible sourcing of cobalt and, in particular, risks related to instances of child labour in cobalt mining in the DRC.
“GE Aviation’s supplier terms and conditions address use of conflict minerals and the human rights of workers, including banning use of underage labour, prohibiting use of forced labour or labour subject to any physical or psychological abuse, or other forms of exploitation or coercion. Suppliers are required to have a sound conflict minerals policy that promotes procurement practices in accordance with Section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act, and GE Aviation conducts an annual conflict mineral campaign with significant suppliers to monitor compliance with these requirements.”
On, then, to the Aerospace Industries Association, which responded as follows: “AIA and its members work in collaboration with the RMI to push suppliers of the 3TG minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) towards smelters who’ve demonstrated sound mining processes that adhere to international standards for responsibly sourced minerals.”
Right, but what happened to the cobalt? “Across our work, we’ve encouraged smelters to develop supply chains where minerals are sourced from smelters or refiners validated as compliant with the RMI’s Responsible Minerals Assurance Process (RMAP) or a similar programme. In doing so, companies can build supply chains from a list of approved suppliers who’ve undergone RMI’s third-party auditing to ensure conformance with RMAP protocols and global standards.”
On the whole, it seems aircraft makers either don’t know or don’t want to say where their cobalt comes from. But we do know about two-thirds of it is from the DRC. Since 2015, Amnesty International has been working to track the cobalt from mines there. I spoke to Mark Dummett, a human rights researcher at Amnesty International in London. Aircraft manufacturers “absolutely have a responsibility for everything that goes into the plane”, Dummett said. “They have an obligation to understand where everything comes from, especially when possible human rights violations are concerned.”
Dummett argues that cobalt is in fact easier to track than, for example, sweatshop garments, because there may be only four or five stages from mine to end user. The question is one of corporate will, rather than of tracking technologies, he says. “What questions are companies asking their suppliers?”
For those who know their history, much of this may seem familiar. It’s now almost 130 years since the creation of Dunlop Rubber. The rubber came from what was then called the “Congo Free State”, which, from 1885 to 1908, was the private property of King Leopold II of Belgium. Millions were forced into unpaid labour, and faced torture and murder.
We don’t know what would happen to the child miners if they were all thrown out of the DRC mines but, as a start, it would be good to know if they are in the supply chain. It seems that some engine makers are asking the questions, but don’t want to share the answers. One group of people to whom manufacturers do listen is travellers. Especially business travellers.