Higher Education Recognizes Conflict Minerals: The University of Edinburgh Interview

On March 1st, 2016, The University of Edinburgh adopted a conflict minerals policy aimed at cutting conflict minerals from their supply chain. Edinburgh has become the first university in the UK to develop a program aimed at mitigating the risk of conflict minerals in their supply chain.

Source Intelligence recently interviewed Liz Cooper, Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability Research and Policy Manager at the University of Edinburgh to gain some more insight into the development of their conflict minerals program:

SI: Commitment to conflict free sourcing (or as close as possible) is a big undertaking. How did the topic come up, and what are the biggest motivating factors behind the development of your conflict free sourcing program something similar to conflict minerals policy?


LC: Here at the University of Edinburgh, we have a proactive procurement team who are aware of the wide range of sustainability risks and opportunities that should be addressed through our procurement activities. We also have researchers working on aspects of human rights in mineral extraction in Africa, courses for students on such topics, and our own department (Social Responsibility and Sustainability) are aware of and working on these issues. So it was a natural progression for us, having made commitments to fair trade by becoming a Fairtrade University back in 2004 (influenced by student activism), to begin to work on other issues like human rights in manufacturing, and conflict minerals. In terms of motivating factors, while there is now a new Sustainable Procurement Duty in Scotland, and associated EU Procurement Law, the Dodd-Frank Act in the US, and now potential regulation at EU level, I think personal interest and commitment to trying to contribute to tackling human rights abuses in supply chains in any way we can, has been the most important factor.


SI: Can you share who in your organization are some of the people that play key roles in your program development?


LC: In order to develop our Conflict Minerals Policy, I worked closely with procurement managers, our procurement director, academic staff with relevant expertise, and an elected student representative working in Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA), who worked to develop an associated policy for (EUSA) procurement and other activities. We also held a couple of events on conflict minerals, so students, staff and the general public were able to learn about the issue and share their ideas.


SI: Before your public commitment to conflict free sourcing (or close as possible), you must have foreseen some challenges. What were some of the main challenges you thought you would face, and how have you overcome them? Have there been any challenges that you did not foresee, but in fact have become present as you move forward with you program?


LC: Since we operate within the framework of public procurement, which is highly regulated to allow fair competition within the EU, we are not able to simply choose who we buy from. We are required to go through a thorough tender process, and for electronics goods, this typically is run by a public procurement consortium, which we are a member of. We do have influence over the sustainability questions asked through agreements set up by consortia, and are able to continue to influence contracted companies through our supplier engagement procedures. However, public (including student and staff) expectations about how much we can do to guarantee conflict free supply chains may at times be unrealistic.

A common challenge related to any efforts to ensure social responsibility in supply chains relates to lack of transparency about the different actors involved, from mines, to traders to factories. This is not something we can solve alone, but we collaborate with other organizations, such as Electronics Watch for monitoring factory working conditions, to develop mechanisms to encourage brands to increase the transparency of their supply chains. We aim to do all we can to influence the market from our position as a client, and a key way to do this is through sharing our approach with other public procurers, to increase our leverage.

SI: On a more technical note, we know you work with the APUC for sourcing, can you describe if and how you have started to map your suppliers, and have you learned anything about your supply chain that you did not know before?

We aim to do all we can to influence the market from our position as a client, and a key way to do this is through sharing our approach with other public procurers, to increase our leverage.

LC: APUC has developed the SUSTAIN project, in collaboration with universities and colleges in Scotland, to start to map suppliers and sub-contractors. This project is in early stages, so we do not yet have much information to share, but we look forward to seeing this exciting initiative develop, and getting a better understanding of supply chains through it.

SI: What are some best practices you can speak to as far as supplier engagement and data gathering and validation go?

LC: In terms of supplier engagement, we have found that the company staff members attending quarterly meetings (as standard with our procurement office) to discuss the contract and product/service do not tend to be the sustainability professionals. We, therefore, need to engage directly with CSR professionals in addition to these meetings and build up relationships with them, in order to discuss progress and opportunities.

SI: Your program details a great bit of research done by students on conflict minerals as part of the University’s “Living Lab,” program. What are some of the focus areas of the conflict minerals research performed by students, and how are you applying that research to your own efforts?


LC: While we have developed and collaborated on Living Lab projects on a range of social responsibility and sustainability projects in the last few years, we have only just started with regards to conflict minerals. We ran a project on the topic during our University-wide Innovative Learning Week last year, where students learnt about conflict minerals, and then developed an online campaign to raise awareness. We also have student dissertations in progress on aspects of conflict minerals and hope to integrate a project into coursework for the coming academic year, which would directly inform our approach to engaging with suppliers.


SI: As an industry practitioner, breaking the supply chain transparency trail for Universities all over the globe can be a challenging feat. Do you have any words of advice for Universities or academic bodies looking to follow in your footsteps?


LC: We are aware that several other universities are also looking at their approach to conflict minerals, so others may also be able to share their advice too. My main recommendation would be for us to work together to speak with the same voice, in order to call for as much action as possible to be taken to tackle conflict minerals in an appropriate way. It’s also really beneficial to communicate well about your activities – our announcement of our Conflict Minerals Policy gained a great detail of media coverage, which helps get the issue on the agenda, so we can continue to work on solutions collectively.