Understand the issues: Technology

Sector

Overview

The technology sector continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, with high-tech solutions continually being found for age-old problems. The benefits this boom has bought are innumerable. Unfortunately, so too are the environmental and social costs.
Conflict funding mineral extraction, exploitative manufacturing facilities and e-waste are just some of the problems faced by the industry.

Despite turning enormous profits, tech-companies have been slow in grappling the need to change. However, through a combination of legislative change, greener energy infrastructure investment and improved product design, we are now beginning to see the industry shift its position. To help raise awareness we have here profiled just some of the current issues and potential solutions already in use.
issue

conflict minerals

Conflict minerals come from global conflict zones. The mineral-rich and war-torn provinces of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have seen over two decades of violence, much of it funded by the mineral trade. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (3TG for short) mined in the DRC enter global markets and are used in a wide range of products, including mobile phones, computers and vehicles.
SOLUTION

REPORTING & TRANSPARENCY

Companies sourcing from conflict areas need to undertake due-diligence checks on their supply chains. In the United States this has been helped by the landmark Dodd-Frank Act which came into force in 2012. It forces all publicly listed companies to check their supply chains for 3TG minerals that could be sourced from the DRC or surrounding countries.

FOR EXAMPLE

APPLE

Among the tech giants, Apple is a real leader. Each year it publishes the Conflict Minerals Report it submits with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and lists the smelters they use. The report demonstrates the firm’s clear commitment to stay away from conflict minerals.
Apple only deals with mineral smelters that allow third party audits and in 2018, they forced their suppliers to remove five mineral smelters for refusing to do this.

action

For individuals

Consumers can avoid products that may contain conflict minerals. The best way you can do this is to see whether the producer has a clear due-diligence policy. Although over two years old, a Harvard Business Review report analysed every report submitted to the SEC in 2014, 2015 and 2016. They found that only 1% could verify “beyond reasonable doubt” that their products were free from conflict minerals while 80% were unsure if there were conflict minerals. This kind of product research on behalf of consumers is essential.

action

For business

Robust due-diligence is the best form of prevention. This requires a willingness on business’ part to face up to and tackle the issue in their supply-chain. There is a win/win here, according to the Enough project, minerals that do not go through conflict-free programmes sell for 30% to 60% less.

Companies can use tools like the EEIC conflict mineral recording template (CMRT) to conduct due-diligence. A study by Professor Blome at Sussex University found that the average cost of implementing due-diligence is just 0.0002% of annual sales.

ISSUE

FAIR MANUFACTURE & TOXINS

The technology sector is plagued by poor working conditions and the use of toxins in the production process. Many products are made in China where firms can make the most of a large, skilled and cheap workforce. There is widespread use of young students as cheap, flexible labour and it’s widely suggested that Chinese labour restrictions on overtime and shift patterns are routinely ignored. Labour rights group Electronics Watch claim workers in many Chinese factories often toil for more than 80 hours a week for low salaries to meet the demands of western consumers.

All electronics products potentially contain toxic chemicals. Heavy metals – such as cadmium, mercury and lead – are essential in most devices. These can have a devastating effect on the environment, the workforce and even consumers. Studies have shown an unusually high incidence of leukemia, lymphoma and brain cancer among current and former employees at production plants across China and Korea.

solution

LABOUR RIGHTS & PHASING OUT TOXINS

Auditing and enforcing standards throughout the supply chain is the only way to ensure overseas suppliers are treating workers ethically. Eliminating toxins from an electronic device isn’t easy as it can mean reformulating an entire circuit system and forcing an often large network of suppliers to eliminate it. However, some companies are taking the initiative and working hard to find effective replacements for hazardous materials. Legislation can also make a difference. EU chemical laws aim to eliminate or limit the use of dangerous chemicals when safer chemicals may be used.
FOR EXAMPLE

FAIRPHONE

Mobile phone producer Fairphone has a labour policy that includes first tier manufacturers and second tier suppliers. The firm used worker feedback surveys that could be filled in on their mobile phone and group dialogue sessions. This enabled the firm to better understand their employees problems and perspectives

HP

In 2010, American tech firm HP announced that it had decided to eliminate PVC – a plastic that releases harmful chemicals in production and when burned – from its power cords. The company employed GreenScreen – a hazardous chemicals assessment tool – to detect PVC in its supply chains. This technology ensured supplier compliance

action

For individuals

Using social media channels, enquiry forms and events to ask questions, ‘contact us’ forms on websites will all help to raise these issues up the agenda in boardrooms and ultimately in company policy. Consumers also have the right to ask if a product contains any substances of high concern and by law the producer or retailer must inform you. Products with the EU ecolabel have been produced with the smallest possible amount of harmful chemicals.

action

For business

Businesses are often bulk purchasers of technology which gives an increased level of power over production and supply and this is a sector where more pressure from the procurement side is needed. Businesses should ask questions about both parts and materials and fair trade practices in all parts of the supply chain. Using marketing to explain why and how your business avoids supply chain malpractice is a useful way to raise awareness.

issue

E-WASTE

It’s an unfortunate truth that the lifecycle of an electronic product usually begins and ends in the hands of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Only 20% of electronic waste is reported to have been properly collected and recycled. Much of the rest ends up on the shores of developing countries where many products are stripped in informal recycling centres. These centres have little in the way of measures to limit damage to the environment and workers’ health. Toxins seep into the soil and water supplies, while harmful smoke is released when products are burnt.
solution

MODULAR PRODUCTION AND REPAIRABILITY

So many electronic products end up being improperly recycled because of a culture of short usage and unreliable designs. Mobiles, for instance, are usually only used for the length of a 24 month contract before being thrown away. A better way of consuming technology would be to buy products which can be easily repaired, individual parts replaced and – when the time comes – can be safely recycled. Although it’s not in the profit-driven interests of many tech companies to do so, technology like this exists.
FOR EXAMPLE

DELL

American tech-giant Dell is leading the way when it comes to recycling in the technology sector with its landmark closed loop recycling scheme. In January 2019, the company surpassed its commitment to take back 2,000,000,000lb of electronics a year early. Dell has been working hard to design this old content into its new devices, and it has already managed to design about 100 million pounds of recycled content back into its products.

action

For individuals

The best thing you can possibly do is to avoid products which are difficult or expensive to repair, or even designed to break after a certain period of time. This could mean choosing a modular product where individual parts can be replaced or buying a product from a producer with a closed loop cycling scheme. Also be aware that it is illegal to send small electrical goods to landfill.

action

For business

Businesses should look to form partnerships with producers who have closed loop recycling schemes to try and improve the momentum on the number of suppliers offering this and investing in this technology.
ISSUE

CLIMATE CRISIS

While rarely mentioned alongside better publicised polluters such as cars or the energy industry, studies suggest the production and use of electronic devices will account for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. While emissions happen at all stages of an electronic product’s life-cycle, the production stage is the most rampant. For smartphones, it’s thought that 80% of emissions are produced at the production stage.

SOLUTION

EMISSIONS REPORTING AND ZERO CARBON TARGETS

Better emissions reporting is a way for large technology companies to keep track of emissions throughout long and incredibly complex supply chains. For companies to begin to reduce their carbon footprint, they need to understand just how much they pollute. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol – if used to Scope 3 – covers all indirect emissions across the supply chain, as well as factory production.
FOR EXAMPLE

APPLE

Apple’s global facilities are now 100% powered by clean energy. All retail stores, offices, data centres and co-located facilities are renewable. Apple is also a Scope 3 emissions reporter, which is really the only way to have a measure of emissions on its colossal supply chains. Examples such as this show that greener change is possible.

action

For individuals

The most effective way to reduce the climate impact of tech products is to extend their life-span. Production remains the most polluting part of the product life cycle and, as energy production in many Western countries shifts to renewables, the ‘use phase’ gets more and more eco-friendly. Also consider other less tangible tech products such as web-hosting and search engines. Web-hosting company, Kualo uses servers run on renewable energy and housed in energy efficient buildings. Ecosia is a search engine which plants trees based on number of searches and using ad revenue.

action

For business

All businesses need to be looking at the totality of carbon emissions including life-cycle costs to better understand the true cost of a product. This includes demanding data on not just the environmental cost of company owned assets and processes, but also those of suppliers. A move to a more circular economy by tech companies would also help shift from the resource intensive linear model of using virgin materials for a product designed to be thrown away at the end of its life.

Discover more

This article was written in partnership with Ethical Consumer magazine. Revolutionise the way you shop, save and live with Ethical Consumer’s unique shopping guides >

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REAL is a community interest company that aims to support citizens and organisational leaders to transition to carbon zero and sustainability, founded by Safia Minney & friends.