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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.