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The Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) was formed in 2004 and incorporated in 2007 as a nonprofit industry trade group focused on the electronics sector. The aim: To help drive the industry collaboratively toward higher levels of socially responsible business practices.

It does so with a code of conduct and intensive means for implementation of the Code.  With over 65 members, the Coalition’s mission is simply stated: to “improve efficiency and social, ethical, and environmental responsibility in the global supply chain.”

Conflict Minerals & Supply Chain Responsibility

Recent U.S. laws and continued pressure from activists has pushed companies to focus on not only how they source their materials but also what they are doing to educate, empower and sustain their suppliers. For the electronics industry, this has become a major piece of work with conflict minerals and extractives playing a significant role.

In a webinar I conducted with Best Buy last year on the release of their latest sustainability report, for example, several questions from the live audience targeted the electronics retailers’ complex supply chain. With ethics dilemmas aplenty and multifold regulations across regions, how is the industry coping with the pressure to improve its sourcing practices while continually pushing themselves to do better?

John Gabriel, chairman of the EICC’s board of directors, will be joining Metalor Technologies, Research In Motion, Responsible Jewelry Association, the International Trade Centre, Chrysler and the CSR Group, in a workshop on Collaboration as an approach to Supply Chain Responsibility at the upcoming Ethical Sourcing Forum in New York City. We sat down for a chat.

Supply Chain Complexities: Compliance vs. Collaboration

As corporate manager of IBM‘s supply chain social responsibility program – a position he has held since 2004 – Gabriel is no stranger to the complexities of auditing, discipline, sustainability and compliance.

“The approach we have taken as an industry group [at the EICC] is to tackle this very challenging topic by engaging with a broad spectrum of our stakeholders directly,” he said.

“Work began a number of years ago with the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). We also engaged leading NGOs and researchers on the topic in order to begin the task of developing solutions to this very complex challenge,” he added.

“We have developed a number of tools to help the process along including a smelter certification scheme and a due diligence survey application that enables companies to survey their suppliers for materiality knowledge” he continued.

EICCJointly developed by the EICC and GeSI members and other industry participants, the survey allows for industry-wide aggregation of responses in order to highlight upstream smelters being used and ultimately country of origin for the minerals in question.”

It’s, of course, easy to over simplify the complications – and the kind of progress needed across sectors – Gabriel is referring to.

In fact, verification of entire supply chains to ensure they are completely free of conflict minerals will require not only exemplary leadership among the industry but, according to Gabriel, a significant amount of out of the box thinking.

“For companies to be able to deploy this is a huge task. We are talking about years’ worth of work before all levels of the supply chain are vetted,” he emphasized, adding, “The infrastructure we are developing will enable this work, but it requires an even larger group of end users to adopt and deploy in order to drive the effort.”

Regulatory Pressure: Rising to the Challenge

With the Dodd-Frank bill ensuring that supply chain reporting on Conflict Minerals becomes mandatory for companies required to file SEC disclosures, Gabriel believes coordination and collaboration is the best way forward on the path to demonstrate regulatory compliance.

And this is what he hopes attendees at the upcoming Ethical Sourcing Forum can take back to their organizations.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary sectionTalkback on March 28, 2012.