People often reference environmental sustainability and ethical standards in regards to food, beauty and fashion but many of us accept less than ideal conditions and practices when it comes to the electronics industry. Consumers are avidly and rightly demanding change, but as they drink fairtrade coffee from reusable cups, wearing ethically produced linen, they often forget about the inherent issues that exist in the production of the latest smart phone or electronic device.
Technology and the daily use of electronics have become so deeply embedded in our culture and our lifestyles that it is difficult to imagine our routines without them. It is becoming apparent that eco-innovation and more sustainable and humane practices are crucial to reform the harm the industry is doing. According to a study from the UN: “The world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) a year, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made. Only 20% of this is formally recycled.”
From a human rights perspective, there are a myriad of issues created by the fervent demand for the latest and most cutting-edge iteration of technology devices. From hazardous conditions, child labour and human rights abuses in the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to forced labour used to produce electronic goods in Malaysia and widely reported poor working conditions of some of the biggest tech companies in the world — it is clear that “cheap” electronics come at a human cost.
The electronics industry is one of the most lucrative and most competitive with customers expecting constant innovation, cutting-edge products and seamless experiences at economic prices. So, what can brands do to continue exponential growth while still operating in ethical and sustainable ways?
Here we examine what industry leaders are doing and some key ways that the electronics industry can become more ethical and sustainable moving forward.
1. Ensure the Supply Chain is Sustainable and Ethical
One of the biggest issues in the production of electronics is ensuring that they are manufactured responsibly across the entire supply chain. This means that working conditions are fair, safe and that people are being fairly treated and renumerated. There has been a lot of criticism of brands in this fast moving category, with the spotlight shining on the dubious practices of some of the biggest multinational players in the market. It is important to note that these existing issues have only been intensified further in a post-pandemic environment.
Unethical supply chains remain a persistent issue in this category and virtually all brands have room for growth according to the 2016 Electronics Industry Trends report. While there are some very serious issues to overcome, it is also clear that the electronics industry can be an important source of employment, growth and skills around the globe. There are some large organisations taking significant steps towards cleaning up supply chains.
One example is Microsoft, who is not perfect but who is proactively trying to address some of the current issues. An example of this is Microsoft running regular auditing of supply chains and transparently publishing public reports. Microsoft has also created a supplier code of conduct that tries to tackle issues like modern slavery, human trafficking and responsible sourcing of conflict minerals.
2. Use Recycled and Repurposed Materials
The innate nature of consumer electronics has lead to high turnover and an industry fuelled by constant innovations and iterations of the latest technology. This creates significant issues of ‘e-waste’ with only 12.5% of electronics being recycled and the rest being improperly disposed of. Ultimately this leads to e-waste piled in landfill and toxic materials leaching into the ecosystem and water supply.
One concrete way to address this issue from a brand perspective is by upcycling and repurposing materials and creating more sustainable designs. Fairphone is an example of a company that has done substantial research on the environmental impacts of the electronics industry and firmly puts ethical values first in terms of the production and manufacturing of products. Among various other initiatives, smartphones are made using recycled plastics. Furthermore, the brand has implemented a circular economy, which maximise the usefulness of products, components, and materials across the whole lifecycle.
Another way to address the issue of e-waste is by introducing recycling programs with consumers to ensure that devices and products are disposed of correctly. An example of a company that is currently doing this well is Canon Australia who is a partner of the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI) and who is actively working with consumers and businesses to ensure products are recycled properly.
3. Environmentally Sustainable Practices
While technology has truly changed our lives it is clear that there are a host of environmental issues caused by sourcing raw materials for electronic goods, as well as the mass manufacturing required to meet consumer demand. Some of the key sustainability issues that have to be faced by the industry at large are environmental destruction and pollution across the entire supply chain, eliminating the use of toxic chemicals and reducing the carbon footprint overall.
According to the Guide to Greener Electronics published by Greenpeace the business models that underpin the consumer electronics industry drive short-term profit for brands but currently are not sustainable for people or the environment. With 70–80% of the energy footprint of personal electronic devices occurring during the manufacturing phase, it is clear that policies will need to address the entire supply chain to be effective. There are some companies who are taking steps towards sustainability, like Apple who was the first IT company to make a commitment to being 100% powered by renewable energy across its entire supply chain, as well as building renewable energy projects around the world.
Another sustainability issue is the extensive use of hazardous chemicals in consumer electronics, which exposes people and the environment to harm. HP is making some progress in regards to reducing human and environmental impacts of materials and chemicals across an entire supply chain by finding less hazardous alternatives and putting standards and policies in place that mitigate risks. Paul Mazurkiewicz, a technologist for materials at HP has said: “At HP, we buy a lot of power cables. We knew that because of our buying power, we could have some influence on what the industry was doing… We went really far back in the supply chain, to the people that fundamentally make these materials, and we trained them on how to use the GreenScreen and let them know that HP would be making choices based on the GreenScreen in the future.”
While the consumer electronics industry has fundamentally changed and revolutionised how we live, there are serious environmental and human impacts that must be addressed. With sprawling supply chains and businesses built on short-term profit, a complex set of issues have arisen that must be addressed in order to clean up the industry. From environmental impacts to e-waste and the human cost of constant innovation, the time is now for brands and companies to stop being complacent and take responsibility to create a more sustainable industry. To create true change industry leaders will need to look beyond profit and utilise the tools of mastery and innovation that the industry is so renowned for to put people and the environment first.
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