A recent spate of suicides at Foxconn factories brought scrutiny to the working conditions in the factories where big-brand gadgets are manufactured. But tracing gadget guts to their mineral sources reveals that Foxconn overtime is far from the ugliest link of the supply chain.

In a Times op-ed piece titled "Death By Gadget," Nicholas D. Kristof gives a glimpse into how the electronics industry plays a part in perpetuating a bloody war in Congo:

I've never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo's, and it haunts me. In Congo, I've seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents' flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.

Even though the Enough Project, an anti-genocide activist group, estimates that only a fifth of the world's tantalum comes from Congo, they consider the gadget industry "one of the drivers of the conflict."

Companies like Intel, Apple, and Motorola have pledged to audit their supply chains more carefully and to remove the so-called "conflict mineral" sources, but Enough Project representatives insist that most of the impetus to clean things up is being placed on the companies' suppliers and warn that tech companies can't be content to take suppliers at their word. Intel has been pressured on its Facebook page to support legislation that would reduce trade in conflict minerals, and the Enough Project recently produced a "Get a Mac" spoof that seeks to spread awareness about the issue, condemning both Macs and PCs for using conflict minerals.

It's clear that these supply chains need to be overhauled—something that hasn't gone ignored by the companies who rely on them. And while it's naive to think that manufacturing gadgets with conflict-free tantalum would immediately end Congo's plight, understanding the realities of where these supply chains begin is a necessary step toward truly cleaning them up. [NYTimes]