Consumers pushing for peace

Climate & Natural resources14 Jan 2014Lisa Olsthoorn

What can be done from home against violent conflict worldwide? ‘Do it yourself’ activism through conflict-sensitive political consumption is on the rise.

When it comes to addressing violent conflicts, the global approach to ‘local’ conflict has often been neglected. In order for ‘local’ violent conflicts to be solved, solutions should be found within the structures of our global system as well. The global arms trade is an example of this. As long as countries in peace continue to be part of an economy of war, local conflict will continue. Putting a stop to the (il)legal global arms trade is a slow, yet ambitious and worthwhile project. Structural adjustments can however be made on a much smaller scale as well, starting at home.

Political consumption is on the rise, particularly in northern European countries (Stolle & Micheletti 2013). This relatively new form of ‘do it yourself’ activism has enabled consumers to take responsibility for global developments. Organic foods and fairtrade product companies have, despite the economic crisis, seen their target group and sales grow over the past five years.

Current developments within this movement of political consumption show that consumer awareness in the field of fair production and consumption has extended towards mobile technology. Mobile technology, and smartphones in particular, has been known for its relatively high concentration of minerals. These minerals have been extracted from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or Sierra Leone, for example. And more often than not, such mines are under the control of warlords. Through global supply chains, these so-called ‘conflict minerals’ are used in our mobile phones. Bluntly said, smartphones producers and users foster a war economy and thus perpetuate violent conflict.

To turn this tide, the social enterprise, Fairphone, released the first ‘fair’ phone in December 2013. In Fairphone’s words: ‘Just as Max Havelaar aimed to do this with the first fairtrade coffee, so is Fairphone taking steps towards finding alternative ways to produce necessary raw materials’. Being realistic in setting its first targets, Fairphone claims to have succeeded in making two out of thirty needed minerals – tin and tantulum – conflict-free. Together with the Conflict Free Tin Initiative, Fairphone has extracted its resources from conflict-free mines in the DRC. In the following years, its aim is to use fairtrade gold and explore the possibilities of making more mobile phone resources conflict-free.

While Fairphone started out as a campaign to raise awareness of the use of conflict minerals in mobile phones, the organization adopted a more holistic approach when building the phone. A study I recently conducted among Fairphone consumers shows that buyers have on average been equally interested in the other aspects Fairphone is working on, such as improving working conditions in China and creating an open source operating system.

At this stage, it is not yet possible to make any strong propositions about the success or impact of Fairphone in conflict areas, but it has opened up new possibilities for consumers to make more ethical purchases. Conflict-sensitive consumption is a ‘new’ consumptive trend, but should be considered as part of a grander ethical consumptive lifestyle. This is also reflected in the relatively low level of knowledge the group of consumers says it has on the conflict in the DRC. Conflict-sensitive consumption does not necessarily go hand in hand with deep knowledge on conflict.

However, as the Dodd Frank Act in the United States of America has shown, changes in business practices as a result of consumer lobby can have a grand impact on conflict areas. The Dodd Frank Act has forced businesses to trace the origins of their resources. But the consequences have not only been positive. Some companies have, due to the highly complex supply chains and untraceability of their resources, withdrawn all their investments from the DRC region. This has led to loss of employment and fewer sources of income for the local population. With higher unemployment and poverty, the region is prone to even more violent eruptions.

As is shown in the study, the Fairphone buyers are aware of the power they have as consumers. But should the consumers’ relative lack of extensive knowledge of the conflict be considered dangerous? As ‘voting with your money’ is becoming a popular means to express political opinions, how can this development be properly directed?

Fairphone has chosen the path of learning by doing. It has now paved the way for conflict-sensitive political consumption for smartphone users in Europe. Luckily, Fairphone is fully aware that it has taken only the very early steps toward producing a completely ‘fair’ phone. The effects of consumer involvement in conflict will become clearer over the coming years. For now, let us continue to learn by doing – creating awareness of the link between consumption and conflict and adjusting our behaviour accordingly.


Micheletti, Michele and Dietlind Stolle (2013) ‘Political consumerism: global responsibility in action’, Cambridge University Press, p. 59-94.

This blogpost is based on a Master’s studies research on conflict-sensitive consumerism that the author is currently conducting.