Don't ask, don't tell. This is the deal consumers have long been offered by companies in exchange for cheaper clothes, cheaper food, and cheaper gadgets. Knowing the terms of this deal, it can be difficult to ask too many questions about where or how our favourite products are made, or indeed, know whether we would be able to handle the answers.
Increasingly, however, consumers are becoming braver. We can handle the truth and won't put up with silence. Partly as a result of successful campaigns to document the rise of modern slavery, new legislation will soon require UK companies to disclose what they are doing to ensure their supply chains are "slavery free". But this isn't the first time consumers have demanded to know more about the journey their favourite products make from source to shelves.
When Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed in April 2013, it claimed the lives of 1,129 garment workers. The tragedy briefly illuminated the reality behind our desire for ever-cheaper clothing-and consumers demanded companies sign the legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Even the horsemeat scandal, in the same year, invoked outrage, as consumers learned of the murky and circuitous routes that take our food from farm to table. The British government responded with a review into the "current weaknesses of our food supply networks." It seemed companies and governments had finally realised that the 'don't ask, don't tell' deal was unfit for business in 2014.
Yet, despite these gains, there is still one crucial area where both governments and companies are dragging their feet: the trade in minerals.
For twenty years, Global Witness has revealed how the trade in conflict minerals, such as diamonds, gold, and tin, have fuelled conflicts and human rights abuses in many of the world's poorest and most fragile states. These minerals can end up in everyday items, from jewellery to mobile phones, laptops, lightbulbs and games consoles. In places like Colombia and central Africa, long-running conflicts, fuelled in part by this trade, have killed thousands and displaced more than eight million people. But this is a global problem that takes many forms. The trade in conflict minerals has also funded conflicts and human rights abuses, or provided secret funding to abusive groups, in countries such as Afghanistan, parts of Colombia, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe. Like slavery and forced labour, this violence is not an acceptable cost of doing business. Here, governments and businesses must also urgently act to clean up supply chains.
The EU is a big player in the trade in minerals, responsible for almost a quarter of the global trade in tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. But while the US and twelve African countries have responded with a commitment to strong mandatory regulation designed to clean up the trade, the EU has no binding legislation on the table. This means that companies sourcing minerals from some of the most fragile places on earth do not have to do any checks on their supply chains, nor tell us what they have done to make sure their products have not left a wake of destruction.
Recognising this, the European Commission proposed a voluntary scheme in March this year-in a bid to encourage European companies to source their minerals responsibly. But, it is toothless. It covers only 0.05% of EU companies involved in the trade and these companies only have to check their supply chains if they choose to opt in. The proposed scheme does not cover products, such as jewellery and mobile phones, and will effectively leave the EU without any meaningful regulation to make sure Europe's mineral trade is conducted responsibly.
We are at a critical juncture. The Bangladesh Accord, the Modern Slavery Act, and conflict minerals legislation in the US and central Africa, are landmark achievements that show that business can be done responsibly and need not take place in the shadows. By dragging its feet instead of building on these achievements the EU risks undermining this progress, and missing its opportunity to shine a light on the equally deadly trade in conflict minerals.
We know consumers are no longer willing to accept antiquated deals. It is time to ask the tough questions and understand how our consumption links us to communities as diverse as the products we consume. The European Parliament and Council still have an opportunity to strengthen the conflict mineral proposal, but not for long. Global Witness is calling on them to change the draft law and add robust mandatory requirements on all EU companies to source minerals responsibly.
We're going to keep on asking the tough questions. Consumers deserve answers.
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