Monday, 2 December 2013

Conflict minerals – emerging research impact and opportunity

One of the most important and exciting areas of our research program on sustainability of industrial materials has been on conflict minerals. Not to minimize the gravity of the serious conflict and humanitarian problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), our focus has not directly concerned the situation on the ground in Africa. Rather, we have drawn on my expertise in metallurgy and experience in industry and with life cycle assessment. Our widely-cited GHGm (2008) report (by Young, Dias, Fonseca, O’Keefe) was the first large report looking at the issue as it relates to the electronics supply-chain.
Photograph by Marcus Bleasdale for National Geographic (via HuffPost)
Our research program to date has examined the issue through the lens of industrial ecology, looking at the flows and supply of minerals and metals (Young & Dias, 2012), and considering the life cycle management (Young & Dias, 2011) of materials supply chains. The body of presentations and abstracts continues to grow.

Critically, I believe that the case of conflict minerals management presents a model for sustainability management of metals flows more generally. Smelter and refineries provide a discrete number of known bottleneck points where purchases of metal-bearing feedstocks can be controlled for key attributes. Beyond the attribute of “conflict-free”, materials could be screened for responsible sourcing attributes like country of origin, recycled content, greenhouse gas emissions profile, labor conditions in mining, or ISO 14001 management oversight. Sustainability certification and stewardship of industrial metals is emerging into the mainstream.

This topic is diverse and rich. Other perspectives and research approaches could include international development, corporate social responsibility, international law, corporate governance, peace and conflict studies, complexity studies, sociology, or straight-up business management. For students looking for interesting projects, conflict mineral research is a prime area suitable for examination in programs like our University of Waterloo masters degree MES in Sustainability Management.