Limiting e-waste through ethical supply chain practices
A significant amount of waste – including flame retardants and gas pollutants – is generated during the manufacturing process of electronic components, which is hazardous to both plant workers and the environment if not handled and disposed of properly. As technology seeps into every aspect of our lives, electronic waste (e-waste) is a key challenge for the electronics sector. The number of electronic devices available to the average consumer is increasing – TVs, tablets, phones, kitchen appliances, wearable tech and more – and so too does the amount of production waste. It is estimated that e-waste will be the fastest growing waste type, reaching 48.2 million metric tons this year.
Countries with few environmental regulations face the brunt of the damage, with international companies shipping e-waste across oceans to remain compliant with reduction laws in their home country. Instead of addressing risk in their own electronics supply chain, many companies are comfortable pushing the problem to other shores. This causes serious environmental and human health threats due to a lack of appropriate recycling processes in the developing countries shouldering the burden. These countries often don’t have the infrastructure required to ethically or efficiently handle waste recycling, leading to a buildup of harmful chemicals that affect populations near dumping sites.
The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector has led the charge for sustainable procurement in recent years as technology companies push hard to meet consumer demands for transparency in the supply chain. Even so, words only mean so much and the pressure to establish successful sustainable practices is mounting, bringing implementation challenges to the forefront of the industry. In fact, according to our recent Global Risk and Performance Index, the environmental performance scores for large ICT suppliers actually decreased from 2015 to 2016.
The extensive use of toxic chemicals in the production of ICT devices generates a variety of issues throughout the entire product lifecycle, including environmental pollution or life-threatening diseases. These issues can only be addressed when companies strive to improve their sustainable performance by implementing measures and technologies that reduce, recycle or reuse waste. To address this problem, ethical practices must reach each stage of the electronics supply chain, from the sourcing of raw materials and product manufacturing to end-of-life recycling.
The challenges are only growing
Not only are electronics companies faced with a diminishing supply of raw materials, but many of the countries that supply source materials such as cobalt, coltan and copper are marred by corruption and civil war. “Conflict-free” isn’t just a buzzword anymore – it was made into a financial reform law a few years back, holding companies responsible for disclosing the origin of materials purchased. Even as the new U.S. administration considers suspending this law, consumer demand for responsibly sourced materials is only growing. While the electronics industry has committed to more sustainable practices, implementation is easier said than done, especially as standards and consumer expectations change.
Late last year, following China’s announcement it would join the UK and France in phasing out fossil-fuel powered cars, demand for lithium and cobalt spiked. This increased demand amplifies the social and environmental risks associated with the electronics industry’s key raw materials, namely cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese and graphite. While improving in some countries, worker safety and environmental standards are still a concern for countries producing these materials. The more attention that is drawn to these sourcing processes, the more risk is found that needs to be addressed. Electronics companies have been addressing the demand for transparent and sustainable practices, and while these initiatives put the pressure on producers and suppliers to improve their own standards, there is still much to be done.
To stay ahead in sustainable procurement, the IT and telecommunications sectors must not only monitor, but also engage both upstream and downstream suppliers despite an increasingly complex value chain. Electronics companies that hold suppliers and industry partners to higher standards will find it easier to limit the harmful impacts of their product development practices and mitigate social and environmental risk. Global standards are changing and the electronics supply chain will be hard pressed to keep up, driving urgency for technology that promotes transparency and responsible and ethical practices. Electronics companies can only truly and successfully invest in sustainable procurement when involving industry partners from the start of the product development processes.
The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) recognizes that sustainability in the ICT industry supply chain has become a strategic issue in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Because of this, GeSI launched the Electronic Tool for Accountable Supply Chains (E-TASC) tool, which facilitates support and drives accountability in the area of human rights and other sustainability standards throughout the supply chain. EcoVadis administers E-TASC by combining a cloud-based platform and data validation services, allowing the ICT industry to effectively implement a common approach in monitoring suppliers Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices. Suppliers to the ICT industry can use E-TASC to avoid duplication of questionnaires and audits and share easy-to-understand scorecards and reliable ratings with their customers. Current E-TASC member companies include Nokia, Verizon, Orange, Telenor, Deutsche Telekom, Vimpelcom amongst others.