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The Human Cost of Your Gadgets - Choose Secondhand to Save Lives

In the modern quest for sustainability, our choices as consumers wield considerable power. As demand for electric cars, smartphones, and other high-tech devices grows, so does the demand for metals like cobalt and copper, crucial components of lithium-ion batteries. However, this surge in demand is driving a wave of human rights abuses and environmental devastation, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The Hidden Cost of Cobalt Mining

A recent 100-page report by Amnesty International and Initiative pour la Bonne Gouvernance et les Droits Humains (IBGDH) sheds light on the dark side of the cobalt and copper mining industry. In their scramble to meet the skyrocketing demand for these metals, multinational mining companies are forcibly evicting entire communities, leaving behind a trail of destruction and abuse. The people of Kolwezi in the DRC, for example, have faced forced evictions, sexual assault, arson, and beatings, as their homes and farmlands are taken over by mining operations.

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, aptly puts it: “Decarbonising the global economy must not lead to further human rights violations.” Yet, this is precisely what is happening as the global push for clean energy technologies intensifies.

The Human Toll

The stories from Kolwezi are heart-wrenching. Residents have watched their homes be demolished, often with little warning and inadequate compensation. Many have been forced into substandard living conditions, without access to clean water or reliable electricity. Former resident Edmond Musans, who once had a comfortable home with running water and electricity, now lives in a small house without basic amenities. Cécile Isaka, another resident, had to dismantle her own house after mining activities caused large cracks, fearing it would collapse.

Beyond the loss of homes, communities have faced violent reprisals. In Mukumbi, soldiers burned down homes and beat villagers. A young girl suffered life-altering burns when her mattress caught fire during one such attack. Farmers near Tshamundenda saw their fields bulldozed without warning, and one woman, Kabibi (name changed for protection), was brutally gang-raped by soldiers while trying to harvest her crops.

Our Role as Consumers

These devastating events highlight the urgent need for ethical consumerism. As buyers, our choices can either perpetuate these abuses or contribute to a solution. One powerful way to make a positive impact is by choosing secondhand electronics and extending the life of our current devices. Here’s how you can help:

1. Hold On to Your Devices: Resist the urge to upgrade to the latest model. The longer you use your phone, laptop, or electric vehicle, the less demand there is for new cobalt and copper extraction.


2. Repair, Don’t Replace: If your device breaks, try to repair it before considering a replacement. Many local shops and online guides can help you fix common issues, from cracked screens to battery replacements.

3. Buy Secondhand: When it’s time to get a new device, opt for secondhand or refurbished products. This not only saves money but also reduces the demand for new mining projects.

4. Advocate for Change: Support organisations and initiatives that promote ethical mining practices and hold companies accountable for their actions. Raise awareness about the human and environmental costs of cobalt mining among your friends and family.

5. Recycle Responsibly: When your device truly reaches the end of its life, ensure it is recycled properly. Many electronics retailers and community programs offer recycling services that can safely dispose of electronic waste.


The transition to a decarbonised economy is crucial for our planet's future, but it should not come at the expense of human rights. By making conscious choices about our electronics, we can help reduce the demand for new cobalt and copper mining, ultimately protecting vulnerable communities like those in the DRC.

Our comfort should never be based on the exploitation of others. As consumers, we have the power to drive change by demanding more ethical practices from manufacturers and by choosing to extend the life cycle of our electronics. Let’s embrace secondhand products, repair what we can, and stand in solidarity with those whose lives are impacted by our consumption.

By doing so, we contribute to a more just and sustainable world, where progress is not measured solely by technological advancements, but by the well-being and dignity of all people.

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