Blog | March 25, 2019

System update: how to fix the ethics problem in Germany's supply chains

Today in Berlin, companies, governments and civil society are meeting to discuss Germany's “Hunger for Raw Materials”.

But how are the raw materials at the forefront of these discussions extracted and traded? With industry expanding its use of mineral-intensive, low-carbon technologies towards a green transition, the world is on the verge of a metals scramble.

Last year, the OECD predicted that by 2060 metal use will have tripled globally. And like the “scramble for Africa” at the turn of the last century, this century’s resource grab is entrenching an economic system which accepts suffering and degradation in one part of the world as a price worth paying for prosperity in another.

The Vale Dam disaster, in which a huge tailings dam broke, killed 300 in the village of Brumadinho, Brazil; while in the DRC, grand-scale corruption in the copper and cobalt mines has dented a nation’s treasury. The visibility of such incidents calls into question the responsibility of German companies whose businesses may be predicated on the use of metals from these sources.

In 2017 Germany was among the top ten global importers of copper, aluminium, zinc and lead (UN Comtrade) – and with populations rising and governments preparing for the transition to zero carbon future, demand for metals is going to go up, up and up again.

But amid the gear-shift to green industry, what’s going on back-stage?

Global metal supply chains are incredible things – they bring minerals and metals from remote corners of the planet to manufacturing and trading hubs, providing us with the metals used in our hospitals, car engines, and plane bodies.

But the underbelly of these supply networks is not always a pleasant sight.

The rights of environmental defenders are routinely abused – sometimes at the cost of their lives – and corruption in the mineral supply chain often fuels civil conflict. Yet the companies tasked with identifying and addressing these harms turn a blind eye – engaged in little more than costly window dressing that changes almost nothing in practise.

Implementing an ethical sourcing policy means actually changing how you get the stuff you need and taking responsibility for how it is mined and traded; but this kind of meaningful action is far less widespread. Whether it is Taliban-funding talc in Afghanistan or the corrupt copper trade in Congo, the supply of metals and minerals remains unrelenting, unethical, and – for the large part – unregulated.

But things are changing – albeit slowly

For over twenty years Global Witness and our colleagues in civil society worldwide have advocated for a metal industry predicated on responsibly managed supply chains, and things are changing – albeit slowly.

 Recently revealed plans to introduce human rights due diligence laws for German companies are a welcome development. Many of us are waiting for the results of the German National Action plan – if companies fail to report fully and in detail under that plan, the government has committed to take legislative action. But we can do more.

The mining companies, metal traders, and banks that profit from our planet’s resources must move beyond responsible sourcing rhetoric. They must trade in line with globally accepted international norms and frameworks, and be held to account when they fail to do so.

In the words of Maria Sertã Mansur, a representative of the communities affected by the Vale damn disaster:

“When this kind of thing happens we need to understand the chain that connects us… If you buy minerals from places that violate human rights you are responsible for this.

“These are not accidents; they are an expression of systems failure”

As long as companies fail to carry out basic investigations into the immediate impact of their practices and those of companies throughout their supply, these system failures will continue. German business and government have much work to do to ensure this changes – today is their chance to begin a new era for ethics in German industry.

An abridged version of this piece first appeared in Frankfurter Rundschau in German.


  • Sophia Pickles

    Campaign Leader and Supply Chain Investigator


  • Sophia Pickles

    Campaign Leader and Supply Chain Investigator

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