Gary Niekerk is Director of Corporate Responsibility at Intel. In an exclusive interview with Corporate Citizenship Briefing, he discusses the tech company’s leading approach to sourcing conflict-free minerals.
CCBriefing: Awareness seems to be rising about the extent to which products we use every day – everything from lightbulbs to smartphones and cars – contain minerals from conflict zones and other areas with poor human rights records. Do you think people are becoming more informed about what goes into the products they buy? What does Intel do to help educate its customers and end-users on these issues?
Gary Niekerk: I think consumers are becoming more aware, but it has not yet reached a tipping point where these issues for the average consumer, are at the same level as costs or functionality. We are working to educate consumers by providing more information – we have set-up a dedicated web site on this issue called, “In Pursuit of Conflict-free”
CCBriefing: Intel has been working for a number of years to manufacture the world’s first “conflict-free” microprocessors, and recently achieved this goal. Why was it important for Intel to show leadership in this area?
Gary Niekerk: It was important for us to address the issue, not necessarily “show leadership.” Our conflict-free microprocessor goal was originally an internal goal that we later made public. The goal was used as a challenge to drive ourselves– we didn’t know if it was really achievable. Now that we have achieved this goal, we want to get the word out so other can learn from our effort, and hopefully set their own company goals. It’s like breaking the four minute mile barrier in running– no one thought it could be achieved, but once it was accomplished, many others soon followed.
CCBriefing: Intel has worked hard to source responsibly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, instead of simply taking its business elsewhere. What have been the benefits of this approach? What were the key challenges?
Gary Niekerk: From a humanitarian perspective, we didn’t want to negatively impact the economic livelihood of the innocent artisanal miners working in the region. From a business perspective you could argue that having additional in-region sources for a commodity supports price stability and reduces supply chain risk. The most difficult challenge in sourcing “in-region” material is the lack of infrastructure to support chain of custody control from the “good mineral sources” to the smelter.
CCBriefing: Achieving your goal has meant collaborating closely with stakeholders including suppliers, NGOs, government and other companies/competitors. What have you learnt from this process?
Gary Niekerk: We learned that we cannot do this ourselves and that each group has an important role to play in helping address this herculean challenge. Also, it takes some time to build up the trust when working with groups that historically you may have not always been on the same side of the issue.
CCBriefing: The recently-passed Dodd-Frank Act means that US companies are now obliged to disclose their use of conflict minerals. What effects do you think this will have on company policies and performance in the short- and long-term?
Gary Niekerk: Short term it should bring greater transparency to the supply chain. Longer term, the hope is business will continue to get better at understanding their role in the supply chain and governments and NGOs will continue to work this issue on the ground. Company action alone is not going to be able to resolve these issues – it will take the action of governments and NGOs to address the underlying causes of this conflict and make systemic changes.
CCBriefing: Even when leading companies like Intel take the initiative, does the Dodd-Frank Act show that governments still have a role to play? What do you think other countries can learn from the US’s experience?
Gary Niekerk: Regulations are like taxes – nobody really likes them or wants them– but some level are needed for society to function. It’s really hard to implement regulations that achieve the desired results, especially when you are regulating companies in one country with the hope of affecting the action of people in other country. Obtaining input from multiple stakeholders is the best chance you will have to proliferating a rule that gets closer to the desired objective. Also, countries should look to existing rules and seek out areas of synergy and harmony – and not reinvent when not necessary.
CCBriefing: What would your advice be for companies trying to get to grips with issues in their supply chains? What challenges do you think still remain?
Gary Niekerk: A lot of the ground work relating to supply chain transparency has been done and the information is publicly available at the Conflict Free Sourcing Initiative website. Companies can go to this site and obtain resources, and view a list of smelters that have been validated through independent audits to be “conflict-free.”
CCBriefing: What’s next for Intel in connection with conflict minerals? Do you have any plans to further develop Intel’s efforts in this area?
Gary Niekerk: We are continuing to work on our own supply chain, as well as working to evangelize this issue. As more companies and consumers become informed, we will hopefully see greater action and more progress towards this really important and challenging issue.
Gary Niekerk is Director, Corporate Responsibility Office, Intel Corporation.