SFA Insights: How much does a smart phone really cost?

Communications that Catalyse Scrutiny

SFA Insights: How much does a smart phone really cost?

In 2018, Apple sold more than 850,000 iPhones every day. Creating each one required upward of 20 individual raw materials, each supplied by at least 50 countries and each drawn from every continent on earth except Antarctica. So, if you are reading this on a smartphone, laptop or tablet, you are holding the end product of one of the longest and most complex supply chains in the world. Yet we know virtually nothing about it.

It is tempting to blame the complex web of secrecy and security that characterises modern business practices, and especially business practices in the developing world. There is also a fair argument to be made around the lukewarm embrace of additional scrutiny within mining and minerals sector itself. But when considering the long path that takes raw materials from the deep-red earths of Central Africa into the eager hands of consumers, the problem isn’t just transparency. It’s consistency.

Certification programmes around sustainability and sourcing are fairly commonplace for products like paper, textiles, coffee and chocolate, but raw materials have always been harder to certify due to exactly the complicating factors listed above. It is not for want of trying. More than 100 different certification standards have been created for raw materials, but each assesses a single mineral, process or region to an inconsistent standard. For Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) creating complex products like electric vehicles or smartphones, a true guarantee of sustainability is a virtual impossibility using current standards.

Earlier this year, Sans Frontières Associates was invited to attend a series of meetings on this very subject. Hosted on the banks of the Rhine and deep in the industrial heartland of Germany, we participated in discussions around transparency, sustainability and human rights in the raw materials industry. And where better? The extractive industry may bring Southern Africa, Chile and Australia to mind but formal mining and engineering activity, geological surveys and mineral exploration have been a central feature of the Ruhr for at least 300 years. So, the local raw-materials expertise in Eastern Germany cannot be over-emphasised!

In the months since, we have been working with a group of European business leaders, research and academic institutions, and international organisations to develop an international communications programme for a new universal certification standard which sets out to solve the problem of inconsistency and inefficiency.

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