My quest for a conflict-free laptop: Hewlett-Packard and Acer

Many of the resources in our everyday gadgets are mined in conflict zones, by war profiteers. Cobalt, coltan, tantalite, copper, tin, aluminum, diamonds, …. these metals and minerals that are in our cellphones, our computers, our blackberries, our i-pods, our devices, all our everyday gadgets and luxuries could have helped to ensure a civil war continued. They could have helped to ensure destruction, chaos and death continued. For example, the resource extraction of raw materials in the DR Congo which is used in many products is helping to kill as many as 45,000 people a month. It is also happening in many other parts of world, and we are supporting it by our purchases, unaware.

This angered me beyond belief to think I would be contributing to this. So I decided to find just one electronic device that has proven it is not using conflict resources. I started with a laptop computer.

my first email went to Acer, since this is the brand I currently own. This brand was chosen at the time because it was very cheap (like $500). It broke down slighty over a year after purchase (and just after the warranty had expired), and I was told that it would be cheaper to get a new one rather than to fix it. What happened to quality products that last a lifetime? Repair shops are barely used anymore– it is cheaper to just get new gadgets because technology is soo rapidly changing and so our old gadgets wind up in landfills. Some technology is recycled, but not much.

People could have been enslaved at gunpoint to mine the metals used to make this product. People could have died, been slaughtered, attacked and brutalized to make this product.  People could have been thrown off their ancestral land to make this product. It was no doubt an incredibly energy-intensive and waste producing process. It flew around the world, stopping at probably at least 10 sites to get manufactured, creating pollution along the way. It might have supported war, warlords or buying weapons. It might have ensured a dictator stayed in power that much longer. All so I can have the convenience of a laptop computer. How exciting!

I am contributing to war, destruction and environmental degradation by my purchase and I didn’t know it when I made the purchase. And we cast all our gadgets aside thoughtlessly because we want only the latest, unaware the damage we may be causing elsewhere. Why do we do nothing? The structures in place make it very hard to know the truth. I would take having an “ethical business policy” to mean they don’t support these kinds of atrocities. Shouldn’t it mean this?

The trouble is we seem to have little choice. How many brands are entirely conflict free? How do we even know? What body is in place to even check? Should we just trust the claim of  “ethical purchasing policies”?

I emailed Acer a couple of months ago to ask them if they had an ethical purchasing policy at their company, and what this meant in any great detail. I have yet to receive a response. I have just emailed them for a second time, — and am still waiting on a response. They have no mention on their website about an ethical purchasing policy (where some of the others do), so I’m really not expecting much at this point from them.

Hewlett-Packard suprised me. Its website goes into great detail to explain how they express “global citizenship” and environmental concerns. They were also the first company I came across that did have a list of suppliers available for scruitiny– offering some kind of transparency and responsibility. Sadly, there were some of its suppliers who have admitted to using conflict resources (or not knowing where their resources came from) in public media– and only 95% of the suppliers are listed. This leaves 5% unaccounted for. Contacting every supplier on the list, only led to a longer list of their suppliers and more companies to check and inquire. With the possibility of some conflict resources in my computer– my search must go on. I have called HP to ask about what their “corporate social responsibility”, as advertised on their website, really meant. I am waiting on a phone call back, after being redirected several times to different departments, getting hung up on, having to make 4 different phone calls to different offices and waiting on hold for half an hour on each different call.

No wonder people don’t bother to check.

Perhaps this is one company that can be convinced to change– so I will send emails, and hope for the best. Can we convince them that they need to be more responsible– I sure hope so. These companies are all making profits. Can they not use these profits to create structures that prevent conflict resources from getting into the product supply?  Can they not have an ethical purchasing policy that actually means something? Can they not take steps to be more sustainable? It would be in their interest to be more energy efficient– they could save money. It would be in all our interest for them to have an ethical business practice that actually meant something.

Can our governments not tax these companies to ensure they are respecting international human rights conventions instead of giving them great tax breaks?

The most frustrating part of this whole struggle is the never-ending chase that it seems to create. One inquiry leads to 50 inquiries, which leads to 100 more… how many hands does each product pass through before it gets to us, and what happens at each stage?

I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the truth.

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  1. Please keep up the good work. Maybe in this long struggle for justice and doing the right thing for a change, you will be the agent who finds the ethical laptop and I will be the business man who ensures that my company only uses them. (for example)

    But kudos to you. People like you are the reason why the world will survive.

    Why not see if the (new)government will provide funding for you to go on a fact finding mission. You could even travel to Afr

  2. Sorry – glitch. But, you could travel to these places and find out which companies buy these materials from the rogue mining companies.

    The point is, get the funding so that your investigating capability can increase… it’s worth a shot.

  3. Thank you for your kind words Xavier! I hope that I can find a conflict free computer so that I can spread the word to as many as possible and hope that they change!
    My hope is that I will be able to do a supply chain investigation into the full process at some point, but I need more education first. It would be my dream to set up some sort of system to stop these atrocities.

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