Friday, August 21, 2015

The Conflict over Conflict Minerals and Other Social Governance Disclosures

Today’s post will discuss the DC Circuit’s recent ruling striking down portions of Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule on First Amendment grounds for the second time. Judge Randolph, writing for the majority, clearly enjoyed penning this opinion. He quoted Charles Dickens, Arthur Kostler, and George Orwell while finding that the SEC rule requiring companies to declare whether their products are “DRC Conflict Free” fails strict scrutiny analysis. But I won’t engage in any constitutional analysis here. I leave that to the fine blogs and articles that have delved into that area of the law. See here, here here, here, here, and more.  The NGOs that have vigorously fought for the right of consumers to learn how companies are sourcing their tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold have had understandably strong reactions. One considers the ruling a dangerous precedent on corporate personhood. Global Witness, a well respected NGO, calls it a dangerous and damaging ruling.

Regular readers of this blog know that I filed an amicus brief arguing that the law meant to defund the rebels raping and pillaging in the Democratic Republic of Congo was more likely to harm than help the intended recipients—the Congolese people.  I have written probably a dozen blog posts on Dodd-Frank 1502 and won’t list them all but for more information see some of my most recent posts here, here, and here. The goal of this name and shame law is to ensure that consumers and investors know which companies are sourcing minerals from mines that are controlled by rebels. The theory is that consumers, armed with disclosures, will pressure companies to make sure that they use only “conflict-free” minerals in their cameras, cell phones, toothpaste, diapers, jewelry and component parts. I assume that the SEC will seek a full re-hearing or some other relief even though Chair May Jo White has said, “seeking to improve safety in mines for workers or to end horrible human rights atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are compelling objectives, which, as a citizen, I wholeheartedly share … [b]ut, as the Chair of the SEC, I must question, as a policy matter, using the federal securities laws and the SEC’s powers of mandatory disclosure to accomplish these goals.”

I agree with Chair White even though I applaud the efforts of companies like Apple and Intel to comply with this flawed law. Indeed, the Enough Project, which with others has led the fight for this and other laws, now reports that there are 140 “conflict-free” smelters. But the violence continues as just this week the press reports that the Congolese government announced that it is investigating its own peacekeeprs/soldiers for rape in the neighboring Central African Republic and the UN acknowledged that fighting between armed militias is still a problem and that they are still resisting state authority. News reports indicated two days ago that clinics are closing because of fear of attack by Ugandan rebels.  This hits particularly close to me because my connection with DRC and the conflict mineral fight stems from the work that an NGO that I work with has done training doctors and midwives in the heart of the conflict zone there.

I don’t know how effective Dodd-Frank will be if the issuers don’t have to disclose what the court has called the Scarlet letter of “non DRC-conflict free.” But more important, as I argue in my writings, I don’t think that consumers’ buying habits match what they say when surveyed about ethical sourcing. In my most recent article (which I will post once the editors are done), I point out the following:

A recent survey used to support the new UK Modern Slavery Act indicates that two-thirds of UK consumers would stop buying a product if they found out that slaves were involved in the manufacturing process and that they would be willing to pay up to 10% more for slave-free products…The numbers are similar but slightly lower for those surveyed in the United States. But note, “when asked if they would be willing to pay more for their favourite products if this ensured they were produced without the use of modern slavery: 52% of American consumers said they would pay more to ensure products were produced without modern slavery; 27% were not sure; 21% said they would not pay more.” This means that at least 20% and possibly almost half of informed consumers would not likely change their buying habits. (italics added).

I’m probably more informed than most about the situation in the DRC because I have been there and read almost every report, blog post, article, hearing committee transcript and tweet about conflict minerals. I have seen children digging gold out of the ground while armed rebels stood guard. I have met the village chiefs in the conflict zones. I have been detained by the UN peacekeepers who wanted to know what I was researching and then warned me not to visit the mines because of the five dead bodies (which I saw) lying in the road from a rebel attack the night before. I have stayed in monasteries guarded by men with machine guns and been warned that if I left after dark I was just as likely to be raped by a police officer as a rebel. I have met with many women who were gang raped by rebels and members of the Congolese army. I have had dinner with Nobel nominee Dr. Denis Mukwege, who back in 2011 wanted to know why the US wasn’t stopping the atrocities. I know the situation is terrible. But it won't change and hasn’t changed because of a corporate governance disclosure that most average consumers won’t read (even if the SEC had prevailed) and won’t necessarily act on if they did read it.

Next week I will post about my personal conflict with disclosures. Should I, who refuses to shop at a certain big box retailer, still shop at Amazon now that an expose has revealed a very harsh workplace? What about Costco and others? Stay tuned.

 

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2015/08/the-conflict-over-conflict-minerals-and-other-social-governance-disclosures.html

Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Securities Regulation | Permalink

Comments

Thanks so much for this, Marcia. The work you're doing on this issue is amazing. It's interesting, a colleague recently asked me why the conflict minerals rule in particular was getting so much attention - and I told her it's because it's a perfect storm of several difficult issues, including the importance of the issue itself, combined with the serious questions hether disclosure can substitute for substantive regulation, and the proper role of the SEC.

Posted by: Ann Lipton | Aug 21, 2015 12:55:58 PM

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