At the Jan. 6, 2014, keynote speech at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Intel announced that in the coming year all of Intel’s microprocessors would be sourced from a “conflict-free” metal supply chain. Intel was the first U.S. technology company to make such an announcement.
Intel had worked for years to get to that point. Throughout the tech industry, four of the key metals essential for product manufacturing — tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold — were sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo. That meant it was possible for those metals’ procurement to benefit armed militants involved in the country’s civil war. The easiest way to avoid that outcome would have been to stop sourcing from the Congo altogether, but that would have caused suffering among civilians who depended on the materials trade for a living.
Seeking an ethical resolution to the dilemma, Intel in 2009 began a multiyear effort to audit suppliers and ensure the company was not buying “conflict minerals.” It proved a herculean task. Intel only purchased refined metals that had already traversed a complex global supply chain. To ensure the metals were conflict-free, the company needed to trace not only its own vendors, but every link in that supply chain going back to the metals’ mines of origin.
To accomplish that, Intel developed a program that would become an example throughout the industry. The company worked with non-governmental organization to develop protocols for evaluating facilities and tracking their sources and became the first U.S. company to conduct on-site smelter reviews and audits. In 2010, the first calendar year of the program’s operation, Intel performed 25 five visits in eight countries. By mid-2017, it had visited 107 facilities in 23 countries. The company’s work paved the way for the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative — whose joint working group on extractives Intel co-chaired — to develop and implement a process for third-party smelter evaluations.
The U.S. would eventually enact laws requiring tech companies to perform supplier audits and disclose possible ties to conflict metals, but Intel’s efforts preceded that legislation’s passage and exceeded its eventual requirements.
In 2010, Intel was ranked second among tech companies in its efforts to avoid conflict minerals by the Enough Project, a nonprofit created by the Center for American Progress and the International Crisis Group. When the rankings were updated in 2012, Intel captured the number one slot, having announced its highly ambitious goal of sourcing all its tantalum from a confirmed conflict-free supply chain by the end of the year, and all its gold, tin and tungsten from similarly confirmed sources by the end of 2013. Intel successfully achieved both milestones. The second achievement became official with Intel’s CES 2014 announcement that the company’s microprocessors were confirmed conflict-metal free. They would remain conflict-metal free from that point forward, establishing the company’s position as an industry leader in ethical sourcing.
This story is among a series running to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary in 2018.