When Will Fair Trade Coffee Drinkers Embrace Fair Trade Cobalt?

The following article was originally published in the Jordan Independent.

Copper, nickel, and cobalt mining is a controversial topic in Minnesota, but is it more controversial than child labor?

Like it or not, we all use these metals for nearly every aspect of our modern lives, and if we do not mine them in Minnesota, where we have strong protections for workers and the environment, we will import these metals from countries that don’t.

For example, more than 55 percent of the cobalt produced each year is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is neither democratic nor a republic. While 80 percent of the mining is done in large, mechanized mines, 20 percent is mined by hand. Among those who mine by hand are 40,000 children, some as young as 7, who work in dangerous conditions, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

If you think the people mining cobalt by hand in the DRC are using the best available technology to minimize the environmental impact of cobalt mining, think again. Cobalt is often washed in rivers to clean the ore as one step in the cobalt-mining process. Pollution is a feature, not a bug.

Minnesota has the largest reserves of cobalt in the United States, and Minnesota’s strict environmental regulations and worker-protection regulations from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration mean the contrast between developing these resources in Minnesota and developing them in the DRC could not be starker.

Many people willingly pay higher prices for “fair trade” coffee because they want to support coffee plantations that treat their workers well and are good stewards of the environment. So why do many people who want ethically sourced coffee not support locally sourced, ethically mined “fair trade” copper or “fair trade” cobalt mined in right here in Minnesota?

In some ways, this disconnect makes sense. Coffee and other food items are highly visible, and are more or less consumed in the same shape they hold when they leave the farm. In contrast, copper, nickel, and cobalt are raw materials that change forms several times as they are used to manufacture the components in our refrigerators, the pipes in our houses, and the batteries in our smartphones and laptops. The long supply chain for these metals makes them nearly invisible to consumers by the time they end up in their hands.

The short supply chain for food makes it easy for people to justify spending extra money on a product they deem ethical. The long global supply chain for copper is not nearly as forgiving, but this is not a bad thing because Minnesota’s copper-nickel mines are economically attractive, and the ore grades in our state are competitive with other copper mines in North America.

Minnesota also has an advantage over other potential mining sites: the copper, nickel, platinum, and cobalt deposits in our state are the largest untapped reserves of these resources in the world.

Developing these resources, along with Minnesota’s massive titanium deposits, would be a massive boost for the economy of the entire state. Expanded mining will support more 8,500 jobs and add $3.7 billion to Minnesota’s economy, every year, for decades to come.

Mining in Minnesota means the metals we use every day will be mined in an environmentally responsible way. Embracing locally sourced, ethically mined copper and cobalt from Minnesota will also give thousands of our fellow Minnesotans the opportunity to hold high-paying jobs that allow them to save money for their children’s college education, help pay for weddings, and even a reserve fund so they can spoil their grandchildren.

Mining in Minnesota alone will not solve the problems of child labor or environmentally damaging mining practices, but can be one more step toward a solution.

Isaac Orr is a policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment. He may be reached at Isaac.orr@american experiment.org.