We have great news for you!
At SUSHI BIKES, we are aware of our responsibility for the planet and people and are continuously working towards more sustainability. We recently became the first e-bike brand to join the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) to increase our impact on cobalt extraction and support fair labor conditions throughout the supply chain.
In this guest post, David Sturmes, Director Programs & Business Development at the Fair Cobalt Alliance, tells you about the challenges associated with cobalt mining and why this needs an industry-wide collaboration. The english version you are reading here, is the original version.
Now let's leave the rest of the post to him!
David Sturmes, Director Programs & Business Development at FCA writes:The FCA welcomes SUSHI BIKES to its membership.
We are excited to welcome SUSHI BIKES to the Fair Cobalt Alliance. A membership organisation dedicated to enabling the responsible production of cobalt in the DR Congo. SUSHI BIKES is the first e-bike Manufacturer and one of 20+ organisations that have joined the FCA. Their decision to join is an important step for their responsible sourcing. But, what’s the deal with cobalt? Why is everyone talking about the battery metal?
Cobalt - the key to unlocking a green revolution?
Cobalt - a mineral that 10 years ago was unknown to most, stands at the centre of sustainability discussions today. Historically, it has been used to colour porcelain blue - as per the name of the colour cobalt blue. Today, it is a mineral primarily used in the manufacturing of batteries, prominently used for electric vehicles (EVs), consumer electronics as well as energy storage solutions.
Lithium-ion batteries are the most common battery that utilises cobalt, with cobalt making up to 20% of the weight of the cathode. The metal is added to increase the number of charges during a battery lifecycle making cobalt a very useful material, as such, helping to extend the use time of batteries and therefore increasing the sustainability of the product.
Copper-cobalt ore mined from an artisanal mine in Kolwezi, DR Congo.
From mine to market - tracing cobalt back to its origin.
While it is very useful, there are a lot of concerns about how and where cobalt is mined. Cobalt is highly concentrated in one specific part of the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There are other countries like Australia, Morocco, the USA and China which hold some reserves of the commodity, but about 50% of global reserves are located in the south of this central African country, a rather challenging environment to source anything from. Despite its unparalleled mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the countries with the highest rates of poverty and corruption. Their mining code, which stipulates clear rules for the mining sector, has not been enforced.
This has led to conditions on the ground that have been described by many as unacceptable - specifically speaking here about the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector which is responsible for an estimated 5-10% of global cobalt supply - where mining is done by Congolese men, women and in many cases children using the most rudimentary tools, that is a hammer and chisel, plastic bags and bicycles for transport, sometimes up to 80 metres underground.
Artisanal cobalt mining is an important source of income for more than 150,000 men and women.
The big conundrum: is responsible artisanally mined cobalt sourcing an unattainable goal?
Cobalt gained infamous status after Amnesty International published a report in 2016 that highlighted its association with child labour. Back then UNICEF estimated that as many as 30,000 children and youth might be working in the Congolese cobalt sector. Unable to distinguish between artisanally mined and industrially mined cobalt, the knee jerk reaction for many companies across the globe was to disengage from sourcing from the DR Congo, indicating a new preference to source the material elsewhere. Some companies and CEOs went as far as to publicly declare that they would focus on engineering cobalt out of their products.
The truth is that despite efforts to succeed with this, we are nowhere close to a solution where cobalt is no longer needed, and this said, there is no sustainability-backed reason to get rid of the commodity. It helps with the lifetime of the battery after all, but we do need to address the challenges associated with artisanal mining in the DRC.
Even if you were to disengage from Congo and source the mineral elsewhere - with options including integrating recycled cobalt into your supply chain - the odds are that by the time this commodity reaches battery suppliers in China, the material is combined with material from Congo; where at the moment, due to a lack of traceability, and the complexity of the supply chain, it remains difficult to tell whether or not the material has originated from an industrial mine or an artisanal mine site.
A large share of the workforce are women, usually washing the ore to increase the purity and concentration of the material. FCA has recently provided protective wear to ensure that they are not directly exposed to dirty water.
ASM Cobalt - an opportunity overlooked, rather than a risk to avoid.
We must be clear, however, we do not believe that artisanal mining is inherently bad. Even though this might be the first time that you hear about it, the sector employs an estimated 40 million people worldwide. Artisanal mining is not a fringe occurrence limited to cobalt from the DRC, the sector also exists in other metals including gold, tungsten, tin, diamonds, gemstones, sandstone or even lead, employing men and women across Asia, Africa and South America. People that are, in most cases, proud to call artisanal mining their livelihood. The mining codes of the countries where artisanal mining occurs often recognise artisanal mining as a legitimate activity. They codify rules for the sector, as they do for industrial mines, including taxation and land rehabilitation requirements, but for a lot of these countries, the discrepancy between the letter of the law and its implementation on the ground perpetuates the challenges that exist.
So rather than disengaging from the sector, our philosophy is to be a part of the solution and create the safe and decent working conditions on the ground. As per its definition, artisanal miners rely on the most rudimentary tools, oftentimes unable to achieve safe working conditions and effective production processes. The key to harnessing the development potential of the sector is enabling access to the financing and investment necessary to professionalise their working environments despite the small-scale nature of their operations.
Our goal is to enable the estimated 150,000+ individuals in the DRC to be safe at work and make a dignified income from their hard work. Ensuring that no children are present, the right measures are put in place, and the miners pay their fair share of taxes as per the requirements of Congolese law.
Responsible sourcing starts with taking responsibility
As no one actor can transform the sector by themself, investment into the sector at such a scale necessitates collaboration. The Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) has been built as a platform where companies from across the supply chain can make a positive contribution to the development of the artisanal mining sector in the DRC, treating it as an opportunity overlooked rather than a risk to avoid.
For us this means that responsible sourcing starts with taking responsibility. To see better practices in place, we need to help create these practices by investing in the skills development and infrastructure necessary to keep people at work. More than five years after Amnesty International drew attention to the conditions in the sector, one thing is clear: disengagement from ASM, the DRC or even cobalt at large does have unintended consequences that might put the men and women working in the sector, and especially the children we would like to see protected and taken out of child labour at even more risk than they already are.
The FCA is supporting local partner cooperative CMDS through the provision of first aid training to 100+ Safety Captains.
The Fair Cobalt Alliance; a cross-sector action platform enabling a just transition to a sustainable green economy.
The FCA is an action platform, set up as a multi-stakeholder initiative - this means that it’s not only several companies that participate but also non-profit actors that joined hands to help address the challenges on the ground. Our members include companies from across the cobalt supply chain, starting with industrial mining companies like Glencore and CMOC, to companies in the middle of the battery supply chain like ATL, Freyr or British Volt, all the way down to consumer-facing companies like Fairphone, Signify, Sono Motors and now also SUSHI BIKES.
With the financial support of our members, we have established a holistic programme on the ground, comprising an array of projects developed to create dignified working conditions at the artisanal mine sites.
We do this by:
- training workers and advocating for investments into these mine sites;
- remediating child labour, meaning that children identified at mine sites are not simply sent away but are supported to attend school, receive access to vocational training or internship opportunities - making them no longer reliant on the income that they have generated through mining and;
- aiming to increase worker incomes by changing the way cobalt is traded at the mine sites but also investing into diverse livelihood opportunities that boost the incomes of people in the community - making mining a choice, rather than the default option due to the lack of alternatives.
We operate by partnering with local civil society and local partners in the DRC including organisations like CMDS, the local cooperative that is operating the Kamilombe mine site that FCA has been supporting since its launch in August 2020.The FCA is still a young organisation. Last year was challenging due to a global pandemic and the political changes in the DRC, and yet we were still able to make meaningful progress, establishing ourselves and forging strong partnerships with local civil society and relevant governmental agencies. We have recently published our first impact report, dedicated to transparency and openness about both the success stories and challenges encountered by our young initiative, disclosing not only the impact that we have achieved thus far but also the finances of our organisation.
Infographic of the FCA impact report
SUSHI BIKES X FCA: a commitment to sustainability beyond the immediate footprint.
We are incredibly excited to have SUSHI BIKES join the Fair Cobalt Alliance as the first e-bike manufacturer. Their membership not only helps us achieve our vision of achieving full representation of the cobalt supply chain contributing to a common goal of making Congolese cobalt a responsible source of cobalt but also showcases to other small and medium-sized enterprises, like SUSHI BIKES - a small start-up, with a small team and still at the beginning of its journey - that responsible sourcing is not a privilege of the big international companies but everyone’s business.
By joining the FCA, SUSHI BIKES demonstrates a commitment to sustainability beyond the immediate footprint of its products: not only driving e-mobility and trying to get to a carbon-neutral society but also thinking about the impacts of its products across the supply chain at the very source of the minerals that enable our living as it stands. I applaud SUSHI BIKES for taking the step in the right direction and look forward to a fruitful collaboration in the years to come.
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