Glencore has backed a new alliance to support small-scale cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a move aimed at creating a responsibly sourced standard to promote the metal’s use in electric cars.

The Switzerland-based miner, which this year struck a deal to supply Tesla with cobalt, believes the launch of the Fair Cobalt Alliance will encourage carmakers to use Congolese cobalt in their batteries rather than engineering it out. 

The alliance aims to eradicate child labour from mining sites and improve working conditions, as well as support educational opportunities in the DRC. It is also backed by Huayou Cobalt, China’s largest cobalt refiner, which supplies carmakers including Volvo Cars and Volkswagen.

“Where we find environmental, social or labour problems in supply chains, we should not avoid them, we should not disengage, but rather it is our duty to take action and make improvements,” said Assheton Carter, executive director of the Fair Cobalt Alliance.

The DRC supplies 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt, a key raw material in batteries, but more than 10 per cent comes from informal miners digging by hand, including children. Last year, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla were sued by a human rights group on behalf of families of children killed or injured while mining cobalt in the DRC.

Glencore believes that human rights concerns have helped to accelerate moves to substitute the metal in lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. CATL, China’s largest battery maker, said last week it was developing a battery without nickel or cobalt.

Glencore’s industrial operations in the DRC are also under scrutiny because of the company’s relationship with Dan Gertler, an Israeli businessman who was placed on a US sanctions list in December 2017. In June, the Swiss government opened a criminal investigation into Glencore over its failure to prevent alleged corruption in the DRC. 

The launch of the alliance comes as the DRC government plans to clean up the cobalt mining sector by controlling supply. Gecamines, the government’s state-owned miner, has said a new agency, Entreprise Générale de Cobalt, will buy and market all the cobalt from informal miners in the DRC.

The Fair Cobalt Alliance will start with two artisanal mining sites — Kasulu and Kamilombe — near Kolwezi in the south-east of the DRC, with the ambition to expand to three more by the first quarter of next year, Mr Carter said.

The group will improve the sites by providing protective equipment, clean water supplies and removing the surface rock for local miners, said Monique Lempers of Fairphone, an Amsterdam-based company that produces smartphones that aim to have less environmental impact. The sites will be monitored by RCS Global, a supply chain auditing company.

The other members include lighting company Signify, the Impact Facility, the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, Germany’s Sono Motors and battery company Lifesaver.

This article has been updated to clarify that Glencore was not among the companies sued last year by a human rights group on behalf of families of children killed or injured while mining cobalt in the DRC.

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