Companies With Blood on Their Hands

Mining for clarity and change on conflict minerals at the companies we own.

Apr 30, 2014 at 10:15AM

The 2010 post-financial crisis Dodd-Frank Act continues to stoke controversy. Take the imminent conflict minerals disclosure on schedule to hit public companies in about a month. While business interests are still battling it, investors can take note of two looming factors:

  • A Securities and Exchange Commission spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that regardless of continued infighting, most of the ruling will be enacted in early June; and
  • Most public companies haven't drafted disclosure filings to comply with the rule, which are due on May 31.

Last month, business groups defended non-disclosure as a freedom of speech issue in court and won at least a partial victory. A federal appeals court agreed that one portion was unconstitutional and removed it on First Amendment grounds.

Two SEC commissioners have particularly opposed the rule, and this legal development isn't enough; they are still trying to get the whole thing overturned.

Still, even the court didn't gloss over the bloody conflict in question.WSJ coverage also revealed that the court condemned "forcing a company to 'confess blood on its hands.'"

The human toll
Since 1996, 5.4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the result of war. (Congo, formerly Zaire, has been brutally torn by war for many more decades even before that.) Congo is a place of violence and tragedy, but it's also a source of useful minerals like gold, tungsten, tin, and tantalum.

Rebel militia groups control the supply and use terror and violence to force victims to mine for the minerals for their own profits -- and funding their war pursuits. It's basically slave labor, the human toll is terrible, and environmental degradation is also part of the destructive package.

Still, there's a reason why the armed rebels have been able to profit from corporations' product requirements. These materials make our gadget-dominated world go round; they're used in items like smartphones, laptops, and DVD players. Let's not forget cars, airplanes, and even old-fashioned coffee tins. Therefore, they're certainly part of the American lifestyle, with that shadow side of product manufacture.

Beyond the attention-grabbing "blood on the hands" of corporations line, the court case argued against basically making companies criticize themselves. The part of the rule the court threw out had mandated labeling for products that aren't proven free of the minerals.

Risky procrastination
Despite the dramatic language, there's some rationale if chilly reasoning at work. Demand for the products is there, and there's a reason why "necessary evil" is a term. It's doubtful that most individuals working for corporations that use the minerals feel good about the reality, but many of the items in question have become part of our productivity, play, and daily lives.

That doesn't make it right, and many of our corporations are among the most innovative in the world; they should be able to tackle issues like this one. The real victory would be companies that voluntarily ensure their transparency and sound policies on issues like this. Otherwise, consumers will increasingly take stands and demand them.

Sadly, most companies apparently don't get it, given upcoming deadlines. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey revealed that nine out of 10 companies haven't done much to ready themselves for the May 31 deadline to submit drafts on their conflict mineral use to the SEC. A measly 4% of the 700 companies on the list has completed a draft of a filing.

On the other hand, a few public companies deserve credit for being ahead of this issue. Hopefully, they can provide inspiration and models for more companies to effectively tackle the problem and develop in-depth views of their supply chains, as well as who and what they're supporting with their businesses, even indirectly.

Going for good-guy status
Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) may suffer investor criticism for some strategies, but it's been ahead of the game in conflict mineral disclosure without anyone forcing it to do so.

The chip giant has a hand on the reins of its supply chain and has been diligently working in the area. Here's one very tangible, admirable step: It's manufacturing the world's first commercially available microprocessors with materials from smelters validated as DRC conflict-free.

It's no wonder that in 2012, organization RAISE Hope for Congo ranked it No. 1 on its list of companies that are aggressively responding.

Another venerated tech giant, Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), came in at No. 2. According to the organization, HP is one of just five companies that audit suppliers regarding conflict minerals. It's implemented a number of policies and initiatives, and co-founded the Conflict-free Smelters Early Adopters Program.

One of America's most beloved -- albeit occasionally controversial -- gadget companies, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) doesn't top the list. However, it's among those green-lighted by the organization as having taken a proactive approach in examining and auditing its supply chains, hanging a bit further down in the rankings.

Despite business groups' opposition to the SEC rule, and regardless of whether companies are completely ready for a full accounting, the issue certainly must matter to more and more consumers. The fact that an Internet search for corporations that are conflict mineral-free brings up a slew of tech companies' web pages with information on their own policies says something about an issue that is deemed relevant.

Positive revelations
Many investors dislike the idea of enforced conflict minerals disclosure, but such new forms of disclosure shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. SEC filings reveal the nuts and bolts of publicly traded companies we hold or consider for our portfolios.

Great companies don't hide. Great managements can admit to things, and accept the challenges to mend their ways when something is found to be lacking; it's brave to admit wrongs with the conviction that they can be righted with effort, innovation, and a focus on doing the right thing.

Fortunately, some corporate managements are already trying to find ways to make their products and source their raw materials ethically and clean of conflict minerals. These can carry the torch for better practices -- and end fueling ongoing violence and casualties in places like Congo.

Check back at for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

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Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

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