05/17/2011 10:17 am ET | Updated Jul 17, 2011

Conflict Minerals Conundrum: Transparency, Traceability and Tantalum

Consumers interested in making greener and more ethical shopping decisions face numerous challenges. Perhaps the biggest is being able to instantly evaluate and compare products on a full range of sustainability criteria. Not just what brands choose to reveal about their products (say, things like plant-based packaging or some percentage of recycled or renewable content), but the complete picture. Unfortunately, we still live in a opaque world where this information is frequently hard to come by. Sometimes companies are protecting it. And sometimes they just don't know it.

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted this latter phenomenon in an article about a mineral most consumers have never heard of yet is found inside many of their favorite electronic gadgets. It's called tantalum and, according to the WSJ, is "used in parts such as capacitors, which store electric charges, and help power most smartphones and other devices."

The issue surrounding tantalum is that much of it is sourced from the Congo where the mining and sale of it is believed to fund ongoing violence inside the war-torn country. Yet, because the global supply chain for electronic devices is so entangled, opaque and far-flung, most electronics brands have no idea where the tantalum inside their own smartphones comes from. It might come from the Congo, but it also might come from Brazil, China or elsewhere.

For conscious consumers who want to purchase electronic devices made without conflict minerals, help might be on the way. The Dodd-Frank financial legislation includes a clause stating that public companies must disclose to the SEC whether they source tantalum and other key substances such as tin, tungsten and gold from the Congo or its neighboring countries.

It appears increased consumer awareness coupled with legislation is compelling companies to get more serious about tracing the origin of these substances. The Enough Project from the Center For American Progress assesses and ranks companies on their commitment to tracing and eliminating conflict minerals from their products. In many respects, Apple is leading the way.

GoodGuide goes a step further via its sustainability ratings of specific cell phone models by factoring the steps a company is taking to eliminate conflict minerals into each phone's overall score. Here's a video from GoodGuide's founder and Chief Sustainability Officer, Dara O'Rourke, describing the conflict mineral conundrum and highlighting other key environmental, health and social issues to consider when deciding which cell phone to buy.