The production of more and more electric car batteries requires massive amounts of raw materials, and the increasing volumes have ensured that the conditions for their dismantling are scrutinized more closely. Tesla has already been the target of a lawsuit by a human rights organization that accuses the company, together with four pure IT companies, of being part of a system of forced child labor in cobalt extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Tesla is now turning this tables on, so to speak: The electric car and battery manufacturer has joined an alliance that advocates the fair mining of this important raw material – in small mines, but in a controlled manner.
Tesla with cobalt in the field of tension
In its 2019 environmental report from this June, Tesla itself outlined the tension in which a large consumer of cobalt finds itself. On the one hand, it is known that the raw material in the DRC, as the most important supplier, is sometimes mined under dangerous conditions and by children. Tesla is aware of this risk and is working on creating more transparency about the origin. At the same time, the extraction of raw materials is important for the economy and society in the local communities. Tesla will therefore continue to source Congo cobalt in the future, if it is guaranteed that social and environmental standards are adhered to during extraction.
The Bloomberg news agency was the first to report on Tesla joining the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA). The German electric car manufacturer Sono Motors later pointed this out, which according to its website is also a new member of the alliance. And this has explicitly set itself the goal of promoting cobalt mining in informal mines in the Congo. But she wants to help professionalise this work and make it safer and less harmful to the environment. Partners must exclude child labor directly in the mines, but minors should no longer be involved in processing. In addition, FCA supports their registration in schools.
I am happy to announce that we have joined the Fair Cobalt Alliance together with @Tesla, @Fairphone and a number of others! It’s still a long way to go, but it’s a good step in the right direction! pic.twitter.com/19iB5DUHja
– Laurin Hahn (@LaurinHahn) September 10, 2020
According to her, the initiative was founded by Fairphone, the lighting manufacturer Signify (formerly part of Philips) and Huayou, a large cobalt processor from China, according to Bloomberg. In addition to Tesla and Sono Motors as members, the only other car manufacturer to date is Volvo.
Another member is the raw materials giant Glencore, from which Tesla is said to have ordered up to 6,000 tons of cobalt per year this June – arithmetically enough for 750,000 Model 3. According to reports, Glencore is only one of two companies operating in the DRC that seeks certification by the Responsible Minerals Initiative. According to its environmental report, Tesla requires this standard from suppliers.
Tesla partners are looking for alternatives
Tesla is already using less cobalt for its batteries than other electric car manufacturers, and several partners are working on high-performance battery cells without the expensive raw material or significantly less. The delivery agreement with Glencore shows, however, that Tesla will continue to work with cobalt for a while. And the fact that both companies, with their FCA membership, are now increasingly relying on clean and safe mining, including in informal mines, could be good news for poor Congolese who can thus remain involved in this business as long as it still exists.