Over 60% of the world’s cobalt extraction comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is here, in particular between the mines and smelters, that there is a heightened risk to human rights – such as the risk of child labour. All hope isn’t lost, however. 

Mercedes-Benz AG is taking a leading role with its approach to promoting the socially acceptable and environmentally sound extraction of cobalt and lithium. Cobalt is one of the raw materials in batteries that is subject to intense criticism in terms of human rights. 

To combat this Mercedes-Benz is insisting on the use of strong standards for sustainability, making the industry-wide recognised “Standard for Responsible Mining” of the “Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance” (IRMA) one of the key criteria for supplier decisions and contracts within raw material supply chains. 

In 2018, Mercedes-Benz commissioned the auditing and advisory firm RCS Global to establish transparency over the complex cobalt supply chains behind battery cells and to audit these, at every stage, per the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Due Diligence. The OECD’s guidance provides detailed recommendations to help companies respect human rights and avoid contributing to conflict through their mineral purchasing decisions and practices. 

More than 120 suppliers were identified and 60 audits were conducted after a corresponding risk assessment. As things stand at present, there are currently no cobalt mines certified under IRMA’s Standard for Responsible Mining. 

But this standard is in the early stages of adoption, a process Daimler seeks to accelerate. In the company’s contracts, partners will need to commit to working within their own supply chain to source exclusively from raw material suppliers who are audited by the IRMA mining standard. The supply chains will in the future also be regularly monitored. 

Countries of origin viewed as high-risk are deliberately not generally excluded as sources of supply. Instead, the approach taken aims to improve the local situation for the people working there and to strengthen their rights. By doing so, Mercedes-Benz AG is following the recommendation of non-governmental organisations, governments and other relevant interest groups not to withdraw from high-risk countries. 

Per the principle of using leverage before withdrawing, the aim is to encourage the local economy while at the same time ensuring that higher standards concerning the protection of human rights are established. 

“We have had the supply chains for our Mercedes-Benz electric vehicle fleet audited in line with OECD guidance, all the way back to the mine, even though we don’t source cobalt directly ourselves,” emphasises Markus Schäfer, member of the board of management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG; responsible for Daimler Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars COO. 

“Based on the insights gained, we will instruct our battery suppliers to only source cobalt and lithium from certified mining sites in the future. With this, we even go a step further and will ensure our sourcing is from mining sites compliant with the mining standard of the ‘Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance’. 

“This way, in addition to child labour and a range of other social concerns, environmental risks in the mining of raw materials can also be minimised. By doing so, we are paving the way for clean raw materials, from which other participants in the market can also benefit.” 

Renata Jungo Brüngger, member of the board of management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz, responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs, adds: “Our aspiration is very clear: we want our products to contain only raw materials that have been mined and produced without human rights violations. This is one of the core elements of our sustainable business strategy. This way, we are putting an important element of our Human Rights Respect System into practice and are shaping the path to electric drive systems in a sustainable way.” 

Mercedes-Benz is also significantly reducing the use of cobalt in its vehicles. “Mercedes-Benz’s clear development goal is to significantly increase the range of future batteries through advances in energy density, to advance the production maturity of future battery technologies, to significantly reduce charging times, and to further reduce the use of critical materials. In the coming generations of battery cells, the cobalt content is already being reduced to less than 10%,” explains Schäfer. 

“In the future, we want to use post-lithium-ion technologies with new material compositions to completely dispense with materials such as cobalt. The further optimisation of recyclability and its implementation at Mercedes-Benz is also part of the holistic battery strategy.”  

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