Cobalt is an essential requirement for a powerful battery in an electric vehicle. However, violations of human rights, labour and environmental standards during the mining of this metal in the Congo cannot be completely ruled out. Therefore, the BMW Group aspires to achieve the greatest possible transparency in its battery supply chain in order to continue in future to obtain cobalt from sustainable mining.
Electrically powered vehicles give us the guarantee of low-emissions, which in turn result in environmentally friendly mobility. But like smartphones or laptops, their performance is dependant above all on high-quality lithium-ion batteries, the manufacture of which requires cobalt. Because this metal ensures a high energy density in the battery, it is mined on a large scale.
The BMW Group currently only obtains cobalt directly through the purchase of battery cells. However, taking all stages of the value chain into account is an integral part of the company’s corporate strategy. For this reason, the BMW Group also examines the origin of this raw material very closely and critically. This applies above all to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from where two thirds of the quantities required worldwide originate.
“We are working intensively on measures to ensure that our suppliers and their supply chain also consistently comply with the social and environmental standards we expect. This is currently only guaranteed in large-scale industrial mining. However, around 20 percent of cobalt produced in the Congo originates from artisanal mines where workers mine cobalt on a small scale using simple tools,” says Claudia Becker, expert for sustainable purchasing at the BMW Group.
In order to prevent cobalt mined under adverse social and ecological conditions from being used by the BMW Group for batteries in the BMW i3 or the BMW i8 for example, the company demands absolute transparency – above all from every stage of the cobalt supply chain: “We only accept companies that extract cobalt from mines where employees are protected,” emphasizes Becker. Moreover, BMW regularly publishes information on cobalt smelters and the raw material’s countries of origin.
Furthermore, along with numerous other company and organisation such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the BMW Group is actively engaged in the "Responsible Cobalt Initiative" (RCI). The aims include joint measures to overcome social and environmental risks within the cobalt supply chain.
But the BMW Group is going a step further and, together with BASF SE, Samsung SDI and Samsung Electronics, has commissioned the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH to examine over a period of three years how the living and working conditions in small-scale mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can be improved: “From February 2019, the GIZ will be on-site in the Congo to implement various measures for a pilot mine,” Becker emphasises. These measures also include workshops and trainings on occupational safety and protection of the environment. So the priority is not on the fast production of the metal, but on increased static safety in tunnel construction, for example. Local partners such as mining cooperatives participate from the beginning in order to implement the learned measures, not least due to the fact that these changes are both socially and economically beneficial to them.
In this way, a better labour standard for artisanal cobalt mines is to be gradually developed, which will then be further pursued by the local participants and – provided the project is successful – will be scaled up to other artisanal mines in the Congo. At the same time, programmes such as those facilitating simplified access to quality education or the improvement of living conditions in neighbouring communities are being implemented.