Hewlett-Packard

HP’s steps

Now I like HP, well, at least I like them the best out of any of the computer companies I have had the (dis)pleasure of having dialogue with. HP and I had a rocky start as I tried to get to someone who could tell me what I needed to know.

Now that I have found that person, the Product Content Manager, things have gone much more smoothly. She has been forthcoming in answering my questions as directly as possible, even when it implicates the imperfections in their own system, and not trying to skirt around the issues with other faulty claims. I can respect this, because at least it means they are being somewhat forthcoming with me and are actively pursuing some answers from their own suppliers. At least I have a better chance of getting to the truth. I would be more likely to buy from them than any other computer company at this point simply for the direct way in which they have responded to me.

I have been told that HP is an active participant in the EICC/GeSI Extractives Working group which is initiating a project this year to develop supply chain transparency models for cobalt, tin and tantalum. This is a positive step (but not yet enough). Several other companies are also on board with this initiative. (see http://www.gesi.org/files/20080620_ghgm_ser_metalstoelectronics.pdf)

I was given information by HP on the specific suppliers that I questioned in my previous emails to them (Kemet and Hitachi) and was told they have assurances from these companies that they are now using conflict-free resources in the form of Letters of Certification for the source of the materials. I was only able to access this information because they allowed their suppliers to be scruitinized and allowed me to look into slightly deeper than other companies into their supply chain. This is great step and means that they are actually trying to get some answers from their suppliers and are actually willing to work with the public to allow some level of scruitiny.

Do I believe their suppliers’ claims to them? No, I most definitely do not. Especially since the two suppliers that I specificially questioned HP about were implicated in a UN report for major human rights abuses less than 10 years ago and have yet to be charged or investigated further for these abuses. No one has yet to be held accountable for the past abuses, and no real structure has been put into place that I can ascertain to prevent them from happening again in the future.

Letters of Certification are not enough, especially since the metal market is so complicated. As the 2008 report Social and Environmental Responsibility in Metals Supply to the Electronic Industry details, “The metals market can be understood by analogy to a pool of water that is being fed by many streams. Numerous sources, including primary and recycled metal producers, supply the metals market, which is a global commodity pool that circulates and mixes freely. At the same time, numerous buyers withdraw from the pool, often not distinguishing source other than on price. Within the metal pool, metal is metal, where one unit of atoms is substitutable for another.”

If this is the case, there is a long way to go to prevent the metals from entering our electronics devices. Hopefully some sort of structure will be put in place to stop these abuses that goes beyond a voluntary basis. These are human rights abuses that are against the law and should be stopped. Resource extraction is one of the main incentives to war and bloody massacres, slavery and abuse happen for this purpose. There is no reason that these structures should not be mandated by international and national laws. Companies should not be allowed to disregard or sidestep legalities because the system is complicated or because they use suppliers in different countries or are disconnected from their own product line. The law is the law, and companies that break the laws should be punished, especially if they are doing so in full knowledge and making no real steps to change.


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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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