First World Problems: Reconciling Values, Partisanship and Profit

The largest retailer of gold jewelry in the United States is Walmart. Yes, you read that correctly. Walmart undertook a corporate responsibility initiative in 2008 that was met with skepticism. They persevered.

 Love, Earth® was born from a desire to balance consumer demand with environmental concerns and ethical sourcing. The typical 18 karat wedding ring creates approximately 20 tons of waste. In the United States, the EPA and state agencies regulate emissions. Safety of the workers is a preeminent concern, and most workers are unionized unlike their counterparts in places like Congo, where mining drives the economy.

Armed with research and a desire to provide consumers with ethically sourced products, Walmart remains the leader in offering conflict-free jewelry to US consumers. The US makes up only about ten percent of the global market but, as usual, it is an American company looking to balance the scale between what is ethical and optimizing profits.

Most importantly, Walmart did it without regulators breathing down their back. Unfortunately, other companies and manufacturers are not willing to do the right thing without regulations. The issue is traceability. Not only gold in jewelry but also tin, tantalum, and tungsten. Cobalt and copper also figure prominently. These minerals are in every electronic device. They hold the charge, light the screen, and make our cell phones vibrate.

Environmental activists push for green energy and electric or hybrid vehicles. The deforestation of the rainforest in Congo is devastating. The unregulated mines there have no environmental controls. The by-products are destroying the ground water. The environmental lobby in the US can tout higher standards all they want but until they support traceability for their Blood Hybrids, their commitment is based on domestic policies designed to help only Democrats and not really about improving the environment or getting Americans off foreign sources of energy.

The electronics and manufacturing industry has powerful interests as well. They have powerful Republican ties. The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, led by CEO Jay Timmons, a former Chief of Staff to Virginia’s George Allen, are locked in a mutually beneficial foot-dragging scheme.

Though the 1502 Provision contained in the Dodd-Frank bill, passed in 2010, was authored by Republican then-Senator Sam Brownback, it is a casualty of time. Nearly two years hence, the bill’s direction to the Securities and Exchange Commission languishes. The spectre of lawsuits and lack of will continues to prohibit progress.

The tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold mining in Congo is fueled in large part by violence. Some attribute militia violence as a root cause of the troubles in Congo. Others see it as the rampant corruption, instability, and a virtually nonexistent justice system.

What we do know is all of this is unacceptable. According to a study released by the American Journal of Public Health in May 2011, 1,152 women between the ages of 15-49 are brutually raped every day. Auto-cannibalism, child slavery and child soldiers are common.

Before the International Monetary Policy and Trade Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee today, a hearing featured testimony from across the spectrum. Those who wish for responsible trade practices, traceability and increased manufacturing that reflects American values. Others blame the 1502 provision for further impoverishing the very people it was set to protect.

Ultimately, American ingenuity will win out. I listened to the hearing, wishing someone from Walmart had been asked to testify. Or that Tiffany & Company, the famed jeweler which also carries conflict-free jewelry, had testified. Success stories are an important component.

Yes, American manufacturers will have to invest in compliance. They have to reinvest in their businesses anyway. Intel is looking to create a conflict-free chip, leading the way in the tech industry. All around us, there are companies doing the right thing because they can balance their priorities. The cost is about one penny, per product, to the consumer.

Exporting a culture of life is about more than faith. High profit margins are about more than just revenue. There is no guarantee change will be easy. However, American consumers should not be forced to purchase blood hybrids or conflict mineral laden electronics when we know there is a better, safer way.

Instead of looking away as China colonizes Africa and viciously exploits their resources, American companies and consumers should unite, set aside partisanship, and develop a comprehensive strategy that puts the 21st Century into the history books as one where we embodied our values, rebuilt our economy, and allied ourselves with Africans who shared our thirst for freedom and independence.