Fifty people in Super Mario hats and mustaches gathered outside the Nintendo flagship store at Rockefeller Center at 7:30 this morning. They weren't tourists waiting for the doors to open. They were protesters holding signs that said "Slavery Isn't a Game." Their cause: the use of conflict minerals in the production of Nintendo's game consoles.
The protest was the latest salvo in a campaign by Walk Free — the anti-modern-slavery nonprofit — to get Nintendo to take more vigorous, and transparent, steps to eliminate the use of conflict minerals in the production of their consoles.
Electronics companies need minerals found in the mines of Eastern Congo, specifically tungsten, tantalum and tin, to make the devices that entertain and assist us at low prices. Many of those mines, however, are controlled by the antagonists in the brutal conflicts that have ravaged the region; these groups force locals to work in the mines, and the profit from the sale of the minerals further fuels the conflict.
And among major electronics companies, Nintendo, which enjoys a squeaky-clean public image as the family-friendly home of Mario and Zelda, is known as the worst when it comes to conflict minerals. According to an Enough Project report from August of last year, "Nintendo has made no known effort to trace or audit its supply chain." The report ranks Nintendo dead last among electronic companies.
"Nintendo is putting on blinders when it comes to the conflict minerals issue," says Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst at Enough and the co-author of the report.
American companies (including Nintendo's competitor Microsoft) are now legally required to to submit to independent audits of their supply chains, and to disclose the results of those audits to the public and the SEC. Japanese electronics companies aren't subject to such legislation, and as a result have lagged behind, although Sony has led recent efforts to get Japanese companies to voluntarily participate in the audit program.
Nintendo, according to Lezhnev, "has barely done anything."
Asked for comment, a Nintendo spokesperson forwarded BuzzFeed the language of the company's "Conflict Minerals Policy":
We take our social responsibilities as a global company very seriously and expect our production partners to do the same. We ban the use of conflict minerals and also prohibit our production partners from using any conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo and adjoining countries.
Because Nintendo outsources the manufacture and assembly of all Nintendo products to production partners, in 2008 we provided to all of our production partners the Nintendo Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Procurement Guidelines. We implemented these guidelines based on relevant laws, international standards and guidelines that focus on protecting human rights, ensuring workplace safety, promoting corporate ethics and safeguarding the environment...Each of our lead production partners has a policy banning the use of conflict minerals. Additionally, we investigate the source of materials in our products by requesting that our production partners complete a conflict minerals questionnaire; we also require disclosure of the procedures they use to trace minerals within their supply chain.
Moreover, we personally visit the facilities of our production partners to conduct onsite inspections. The intent of these inspections is to continually enforce our policies and provide feedback to ensure that Nintendo's CSR Procurement Guidelines are being followed. During these inspections we emphasize Nintendo's policy that bans the use of conflict minerals; we also require each production partner to share updates on materials sourcing and the conflict minerals issue.
The language does little to assuage Walk Free's concerns. Nintendo doesn't make public the results of its on-site inspections, and the policy makes no reference to any third-party oversight. The point of the audits is partially to make consumers aware of if and how much conflict minerals are being used in their products; Nintendo's opaque, internal process is basically a big "Trust us."
The protest today came ahead of tomorrow's annual shareholder meeting in Kyoto. The most powerful Nintendo employee the protesters met with today was the manager of the flagship store, who initially refused, then agreed, to accept a letter stating the case for conflict mineral transparency. It was glued to a Super Mario question box.