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Responsible sourcing of metals: certification approaches for conflict minerals and conflict-free metals



Responsible sourcing of metals is characterized as an approach for life cycle management (LCM) and sustainable supply chain management (SSCM) of social issues. The focus is on the supply of “conflict minerals”—tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (3TG)—whose mining and trade are implicated in conflict and severe social conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Downstream manufacturers are using compliance strategies to reach multiple tiers and long distances into product chains to buy conflict-free sources of these metals from mines, smelters, and refineries.


The research uses qualitative methods and public documents to compare 16 conflict mineral programs. A theoretical framework in three dimensions guided the enquiry into program governance, program standards, and certification processes. Additional empirical analysis of the conflict-free sourcing program, the largest and most central industry-led effort on conflict minerals, was supported by confidential access to audit reports, company policies, and management procedures on more than 140 metallurgical facilities.

Results and discussion

In fewer than 4 years, conflict-free sourcing programs have impacted global 3TG metal supply chains, as indicated by pricing and significant producer compliance. Electronics, jewelry, and other manufacturers—many influenced by US conflict mineral regulation—are “pulling” metals markets for conflict-free sourcing. Private standard programs focus on product chain chokepoints to support efficient engagement: a limited number of 3TG facilities that are influenced to implement “responsibility management systems,” practice conflict-free sourcing, and undergo compliance audits. Some supply chains operate as closed pipelines along the full product chain from mine to end-product. Tantalum has been most successful as about 95 % of producers are compliant; however, for gold, in particular, the scale of compliance is challenged.


Downstream manufacturing industries are “governing at a distance” the management practices of upstream raw material producers. For LCM, responsible sourcing may be applicable to product chains with other metals and commodities. For SSCM, conflict-free sourcing indicates how compliance and supplier development strategies can penetrate multiple tiers into supply chains to address social issues in developing countries. Future research is needed on understanding more on supplier companies and their motivations and on sustainability performance outcomes for the conflict mineral problem.

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  1. Smelters and refineries are metallurgical facilities that produce crude and refined metal products, respectively. For tin, the product chain includes both smelting and refining; for tantalum and tungsten, these steps are somewhat combined, depending on the final metal or chemical product; for gold, refining is the critical for producing a salable pure product. For simplicity, the term “smelter” is often used to describe both smelting and refining steps.


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The author acknowledges the cooperation and support of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, Global e-Sustainability Initiative, and the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative and is grateful for comments from Liz Muller and three anonymous reviewers.

Conflict of interest

The author is a member of the Audit Review Committee of the Conflict-Free Smelter Program.

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Correspondence to Steven B. Young.

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Responsible editor: Henrikke Baumann

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Young, S.B. Responsible sourcing of metals: certification approaches for conflict minerals and conflict-free metals. Int J Life Cycle Assess 23, 1429–1447 (2018).

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  • Auditing
  • Certification
  • Conflict minerals
  • Governance
  • Metals
  • Mining
  • Raw materials
  • Responsible sourcing
  • Social aspects
  • Standards
  • Sustainable supply chain management