When is a cell phone like a rock? If you have been following the “conflict minerals” issue, the question may seem a little less odd. The recent attention on the source of the basic minerals (i.e., rocks) in electronics (e.g., cell phones) and other products has linked the supply chain from end to end – raw materials to final product.

The reason for this attention is that some of the places producing these minerals suffer from prolonged conflict. Specifically, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) armed groups control much of the mineral-rich Eastern region of the country. Funded by the mineral production in this area, these armed groups have been linked to human rights violations, labor abuses and environmental degradation.

By shining a light on where the metals from the DRC end up – such as cell phones and other electronic devices – activist groups hope to stem the abuses in the DRC by cutting off funding to the armed militias.

In an unprecedented move, the United States Congress recently passed a new law requiring US-based public companies to disclose the measures they have taken to eliminate so-called “conflict minerals” from their supply chains. This new law – part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill signed by President Obama in July – requires the Securities and Exchange Commission to draft a rule by April 2011 setting out new reporting requirements. Under the rule, any US-based publicly-traded company must report the measures it has taken to eliminate conflict metals from its supply chain as well as disclose any additional products that are not “conflict-free.”

Since the law covers four metals – tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold – it affects a broad swath of the American economy. From jewelry to jets and cars to computers (probably including the one you’re using right now), many products contain these materials. Most of the companies affected by the law have little or no knowledge of the sources, much less the mining conditions, of the minerals used in their products. Companies that may only design and market a product will now have to assess their entire supply chain.

As a leader in corporate responsibility, AMD is appalled by the stories of conflict, human rights violations, labor and environmental abuses in the DRC. While mining is several steps away from our work designing products, we are nonetheless concerned and are taking action. AMD is taking a leadership position in the ongoing multi-stakeholder dialogue on this issue involving multiple industrial sectors, non-profit activist groups and socially responsible investment firms. The goal of this dialogue is to develop a workable consensus policy for both implementation of the US law and the diplomacy aimed at ending the human suffering in the DRC.

In addition to the efforts above, we are working with our industry partners, through the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), to trace the sources of these metals. Through this group’s efforts, smelters of these minerals are being audited to determine the sources of ore. The ultimate intent of these efforts is to eliminate minerals associated with funding conflict and human rights abuses from entering the electronics supply chain.

Taking a giant step back from the requirements of the new law, it is fascinating to consider how this issue represents our truly globalized society. When footwear and apparel brands assumed responsibility for the labor conditions in the off-shore factories making their products in the 80’s and 90’s, we entered a new era of corporate responsibility that spanned national borders and changed the relationship between brand and manufacturing companies. Fast forward a couple of decades, and now we have a law requiring a company designing products in California to be responsible for the mining conditions half a world away in the Congo.

Will this work? The short answer is no one knows yet, but just about all the stakeholders agree that tracking metals through the supply chain is only a part of the ultimate solution. Even if the affected industries are able to quickly band together and develop an effective means to track these metals, there are few failsafe systems that cannot be foiled by determined interests.

Tracking these metals is a start, but a sustainable end to the suffering in the Congo will take more. Deeply rooted socio-economic factors must be addressed by governments, civil society and private sector interests and other stakeholders. While the private sector has a role in this discussion by providing jobs, fair wages, ethical business practices and good working conditions, true success must involve all stakeholders.

What is certain is that numerous companies are looking deeper in their supply chains than ever before. While this is costly and time-consuming, new relationships are being forged, awareness is being raised, and information is being shared that will ultimately build greater cohesion across the global supply chain.