2017 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Mobile Power, Human Toll

About the Project

In 2015, Goldman Sachs described lithium as “the new gasoline.” The rush toward lithium-ion batteries for smartphones, other mobile devices and advanced electric cars was widely described by tech executives as environmentally sound, without consequence.

Yet little was known about where the raw materials came from or who was profiting. In the spring of 2016, The Post sent teams of journalists to far-flung places where the batteries’ key materials – cobalt, graphite and lithium – are produced. They found children in abject poverty working in dangerous cobalt mines in Congo; a severe environmental crisis near China’s graphite factories; and broad exploitation of indigenous communities living on top of valuable pockets of lithium in South America.

When Post journalists arrived in Congo, their passports were seized at the airport and they were detained until a local resident vouched for them. The Congolese ANR — the state’s secret police — followed the journalists, who had to find ways to interview subjects discreetly. Post reporters were initially forbidden to visit any mines, especially those where children may have been working. To get footage of a cobalt mine and a river where women and children washed cobalt rocks, The Post gave video cameras to miners.

In China, provincial officials at times halted Post reporters for lack of official permission; authorities often followed them. Villagers who talked were often questioned afterward by local authorities. To pierce the corporate secrecy around supply chains, reporters spent hundreds of hours reviewing public documents, interviewing company officials and visiting factories.

This work enabled The Post to definitively connect the human toll at remote mines and battery factories around the world to leading technology companies. After seeing our evidence, Apple for the first time admitted that cobalt mined by children in dangerous conditions had made it into its devices. The Post also showed how polluting plants in China supplied the three largest battery makers — Samsung SDI, LG Chem and Panasonic — despite assurances to customers that their supply chains were clean. In response to our questions, Samsung said it had launched an investigation into this matter. Panasonic said it had identified the pollution in its supply chain and was correcting it.

After The Post published its stories, a coalition of large tech firms and battery makers announced the Responsible Cobalt Initiative to curb “the worst forms of child labor” and other abuses. And the Electronic Industry Citizenship Council said it would examine human rights and environmental conditions in the mining of raw materials. The Post’s coverage also prompted State Department officials to examine ways it could help.

For revealing how the spread of consumer technology comes at a high cost for those at the start of the supply chain, we are honored to nominate the Washington Post series “Mobile Tech, Human Toll” for Explanatory Reporting.