By joining the Fair Cobalt Alliance, Northvolt strives to assist in the building of a more socially responsible cobalt mining sector.
To foster a sustainable battery industry, securing a sufficient supply of responsibly sourced raw materials is crucial. Directly connected to achieving a sustainable energy transition, this entails developing global resource supply chains, while establishing new sources to ensure supply keeps up with demand.
As a producer of lithium-ion batteries that feature cobalt, Northvolt has been involved with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – the world’s primary source of the cobalt used in most batteries on the market today. At various times, Northvolt has been approached by DRC stakeholders asking for the company’s engagement with the country’s mines and other actors, in part to support in improving working conditions in the developing region.
Meaningful engagement from a company such as Northvolt is the right direction to take. Human rights activists such as Dr. Denis Mukwege, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, have also encouraged companies to engage directly with the DRC and to play a positive role in modernizing its mining industry, which is a crucial pillar of the country's economy.
In Northvolt’s early phases, these discussions prompted the company to travel to the region and engage with stakeholders involved with both large-scale mining and artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Several important lessons were taken from these visits and engagements.
Firstly, it became apparent that because of the size and presence of DRC cobalt within the global supply chain, it would be practically impossible for any large-scale producer of cobalt-dependent batteries to avoid some level of involvement with the DRC, even if it were indirect. Avoiding engagement with the DRC would also be impractical for companies, such as Northvolt, which aim to recycle battery materials recovered from the end-of-life market, as this would inevitably result in involvement with Congolese cobalt.
Secondly, what was also clear was that substantial internal company resources would be required to properly engage with DRC-based mines and stakeholders in the manner that Northvolt would aim for. For Northvolt, selecting and maintaining long-term sourcing partners which meet the company’s sustainability requirements necessitates a rigorous process of screening, due diligence and continual monitoring (see, Northvolt Sustainability & Annual Report 2022, pages 36-39).
Given the company’s belief that regional economic activity must be aligned with sustainable development and a commitment to ensuring the sustainability of its activities, the circumstances led Northvolt to withhold from full-scale engagement in its initial development phase.
But today, Northvolt has grown to over 5,000 employees and matured in various dimensions. Significantly, Northvolt now operates with comprehensive sourcing procedures, managed by well-developed teams of in-house subject matter experts. With this foundation, Northvolt is proud to be able to deepen its engagement in the DRC, with an aim of enabling long-term sourcing from the region aligned with its mission to create the world’s greenest battery.
For over a year, Northvolt has been involved at various levels with DRC stakeholders, including mines, NGOs and other groups that provide necessary knowledge and insight on the local supply chain.
Northvolt has evaluated plans to improve both social and environmental sustainability, and trialled cobalt material sourced from the DRC with the aim of finding long-term partners for the future. Highly valuable counterparts have also been established in the country’s academia, where there is great interest and opportunity for the expansion of education systems, and the creation of increased opportunities for local residents to take on high-skilled jobs in the battery value chain.
Joining the Fair Cobalt Alliance
As a next step to support its engagement with the DRC, Northvolt has joined the Fair Cobalt Alliance. The FCA is a multi-stakeholder NGO, composed of actors from around the world that aim to strengthen and professionalize the DRC’s artisanal and small-scale mining sector (ASM) and contribute to local economic development at large.
While providing a livelihood for thousands of people in the country, ASM is unfortunately associated with sustainability risks. In part, the FCA exists to support the development of ASM towards a safer, fairer future for those involved, and to ensure that as the world may benefit from Congolese cobalt, the people involved in its mining also prosper from their work.
Northvolt is not ready to source cobalt from artisanal and small-scale mining at this stage. Convinced, however, that engagement rather than avoidance is the solution, the company intends to bring its voice and perspective to the issue through participation in the Fair Cobalt Alliance.
Commenting on Northvolt joining the FCA, Ambassador Henric Råsbrant, Embassy of Sweden in Kinshasa, DRC stated:
“I am pleased to see Northvolt's inclusion in the Fair Cobalt Alliance, a crucial step in their commitment to sustainable battery value chains in the DRC. Swedish companies are known for pioneering sustainable solutions, dedicated to advancing a global, just, and green transition, while the DRC is a country immensely rich in resources, which should benefit the Congolese population. Collaboration between the private sector and NGOs is key to improving the implementation of ethical mining practices in the region.”
The responsible way forward for the battery industry is through the development of the DRC, however hard it may be. Open collaboration is a vital tool in this work, and Northvolt encourages its partners, investors and customers to lend their support. It will not be simple work, but we believe it to be right.