Fair Cobalt Alliance: Let’s Talk About Cobalt

By Isabel

24th August 2020

Today we want to talk about cobalt. A raw material that is on the one hand important for the production of lithium-ion batteries, but on the other hand has been repeatedly criticized for problematic mining conditions. These include hazardous mine shafts, lack of basic supplies and the systemic occurrence of child labor. Our Sustainability Program Manager Isabel explains how the Fair Cobalt Alliance wants to improve these conditions and why we have joined the organization.

Man in Congo collecting batteries
Photo: The Impact Facility

Cobalt – What Is That Exactly?

Almost all of us have a tiny amount of it in our pockets. Without this raw material, many of our everyday technical companions such as mobile phones, smart watches or tablets would not even function. We're talking about cobalt, a metal that, due to its chemical properties, is used in lithium-ion batteries in particular to achieve a higher energy density. Because cobalt is particularly conductive, it also plays an essential role in the rapid charging of a battery. 

Anyone who thinks of electric cars now when hearing terms such as "energy density" and "fast charging capability" is absolutely right. Because the raw material is also used here. Depending on the vehicle model and battery type, a few kilograms of cobalt are required to make batteries more powerful and efficient. A considerable amount has to be mined, processed and transported before it finds its way into the battery – and this is where things get complicated. After all, cobalt production is one aspect of electromobility that we should call exactly as it is: non-transparent, uncontrolled and without human protection. 

A cobald mining area
Photo: The Impact Facility

The reasons for this have long been known. According to widely accepted statistics by the United States Geological Survey more than half of known cobalt reserves are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. About twenty percent of cobalt mined in the DRC originates from informal, artisanal and small-scale mining sites, where self-employed miners extract the metal under often life-threatening conditions. The mine shafts are dug with the simplest of tools, without safety gear or adequate ventilation. In very few cases, attention is paid to occupational safety and the compliance with safety measures. In the shafts, which are sometimes twice or even three times as deep as the legally allowed maximum of 30 metres, workers risk their lives every day, digging for cobalt-rich ore without wearing masks and safety devices. Accidents often occur and even children help in the mining areas and are part of this illegal form of small-scale mining. The BGR estimates, despite an official government ban, that around 200,000 Congolese are exposed to the dangers of this work.

Possible Solutions

In 2016, Amnesty International already drew attention to the difficult conditions in the poverty-stricken region in the South of the DRC in a highly acclaimed report. In the course of the debate, a large number of (electric) car manufacturers and technology companies announced that they would drastically reduce the amount of cobalt in their batteries, or even try to not use it at all. Millions of dollars are being invested in research to find an alternative. We also want to keep the cobalt percentage in the Sion battery low. But this approach does not solve the fundamental problems of local mining conditions and the associated human rights violations. Moreover, small-scale mining is a key livelihood for thousands of families, especially in the DRC, a country of incredible mineral wealth boasting tin, tungsten, tantalum, gold, cobalt and copper reserves to name but a few.

Cobald Miners in Congo
Photo: The Impact Facility

Given the complexity of the battery supply chain it is almost impossible to tell with certainty where the actual cobalt used in the Sion has originated. Mining work, both large scale and artisanal, is more than six production steps removed from the final assembly of the car, as the material is moving from mines to traders, crude refiners, exporters, refiners, and then cathode and battery manufacturers. Although companies can oblige their respective suppliers through their purchasing conditions to exclude child labour or other human rights violations, a corresponding contract is only valid in conjunction with the direct supplier. In most cases, suppliers’ suppliers operating mid-stream of the supply chain lack adequate measures to ensure the origin of the material and as such ensure that material has been produced in alignment with our code of conduct.

Young Man working on a cobald mining site
Photo: The Impact Facility

Rather than investing time and effort to prove or design an ASM-free supply chain, companies should contribute to improve the overall working conditions. There is a widely-accepted set of rules that defines how to proceed in the case of identified human rights violations in your supply chain published by the OECD, but it is not legally binding.

With the large number of businesses involved in the process, which are accountable for the preparation, transport or further processing of the cobalt, the responsibility often only shifts from one supplier to the next without any change in local conditions. Therefore, an upstream-centric approach must also be taken. In other words, working from responsible mining operations down to the end product.

Women working on a cobald site
Photo: The Impact Facility

The Fair Cobalt Alliance

A different approach is taken by the Fair Cobalt Alliance, an action platform to coordinate, support and scale up local initiatives to improve conditions in small-scale mining. The initiative was launched by the sustainable smartphone manufacturer Fairphone, Signify and Huayou in collaboration with the Impact Facility. The Fair Cobalt Alliance pursues three objectives. 

The first is the professionalisation of independent small-scale mining and better training of the people working in it. The alliance has drawn up a detailed model that describes measures to make the mines safer in the long term. These include, for example, the installation of medical and sanitary facilities on site and professional management of the mining sites. The second objective is to establish credible control and monitoring mechanisms to keep children away from mines and thus effectively prevent child labour in supply chains. Thirdly, the Fair Cobalt Alliance is working to achieve a sustainable increase in household income for families dependent on cobalt mining. To achieve this, the companies involved invest in community programmes aimed at community development. This can include, for example, providing funds for children to attend school, or offering training for adults who work as self-employed miners to feed their families. Only if the living conditions for the local people are improved in the long term, the establishment of a fair supply chain for cobalt can be implemented and child labour avoided.

Katja Tschakert (Director Business Development) and Isabel Palacios Gallo (Sustainability Program Manager) at Sono Motors.
Katja Tschakert (Director Business Development) and Isabel Palacios Gallo (Sustainability Program Manager) at Sono Motors.

Sono Motors – Why We Participate

We see great potential in the Fair Cobalt Alliance to make cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo fairer and more transparent. As a mobility company that is one hundred percent committed to electric mobility, we want to live up to our responsibility towards people and the planet. At the moment there is no fair certified cobalt on the market and we want to help change that. After all, our plan is to build 257,000 Sion by 2027. That is a considerable amount of cobalt that has to be extracted from the earth, processed and transported. We want this to happen under fair conditions, even though we know that change does not happen overnight. 

We are therefore all the more pleased to be a member of the Fair Cobalt Alliance and to be able to help drive forward the implementation of its goals. With the help of the Fair Cobalt Alliance, we want to make our cobalt supply chain transparent and help implement solutions locally. Due to the fundamental rethinking in the energy and mobility sector, the demand for batteries – and therefore also for cobalt – will continue to grow in the coming years. It is our responsibility as a company to act and ensure that the raw materials we use are mined under environmentally friendly and humane conditions.

See our Fair Cobalt Alliance Statement

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