The global ICT industry accounts for approximately 2% of global CO2 emissions. It thrives on obsolescence and this ’use and throw’ nature built into technological products is generating mountains of e-waste.
As one doesn’t see belching smokestacks, the industry is seen as ‘green’. But electronic products contain hazardous substances. Toxic chemicals reach landfills, leach into groundwater, come in contact with air, and with small children searching through trash for the informal sector.
Industry leaders claim to be committed to re-examining their carbon footprint. Their products are re-engineered to achieve zero waste – from manufacture to end-of-life. But this is just a drop of initiative amid a whole morass of ‘greenwash’.
Websites contain standard rhetoric:
- We are compliant with all laws, worldwide.
- We meet the requirements of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.
- All our products worldwide are compliant with the RoHS Directive, requiring that discarded electronic equipment be recycled.
- We have environmental product data that tells you what each product contains and how to recycle it.
- We recycle almost worldwide.
We checked the validity of these claims, by calling the local office of a several IT Companies and asked them: “How can I recycle an old computer or a used printer cartridge with your company?” We took two developing countries, two developed countries, and one middle eastern country. Sadly, the findings were as expected. “We do not recycle in developing countries”.
What have we learnt? There is focus on recycling. There is also disparity between what is said and done. There is little or no legislation in place in the developing world. Multinational corporations fail to deliver on their promise of sustainability. Why? Is worldwide recycling too complex for single companies? Is it the absence of consumer awareness? Why not extend the warranty from one year to the expected lifetime of a product?
The core product being sold is information. The fundamental consumer need is “information, better and faster”. This does not add to e-waste and should be the focus, rather than gadgets that are only access points to information. Unless this realisation becomes rooted in the industry, the existing challenges will remain.
Forward looking companies are already exploring “Sustainable Competitiveness”. This embraces the concept of a “circular economy”, one that moves in a cycle of growth and renewal through eliminating waste and encouraging diversity in social, human and natural capital. The end result will be a society that shuns waste – solid waste, but also wasted money, wasted ideas, wasted talents, wasted potential.
A comprehensive approach is required, including design for long term use and recycling; recycling and reuse through mandatory take back policies, and increased customer and manufacturer awareness, appropriate business models, with a focus on customers need for information rather than offloading products innovations that promote reuse and recycling and regulation, to monitor and enforce the necessary changes.
Thomas Gladwin, the Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, says: “Large-scale organisational transformation toward sustainability is a long-term and multi-level challenge, entailing a range of reinforcing roles and tasks. Organisational purpose, identity and meaning must be aligned with ecological and social contribution. Leaders must challenge embedded assumptions by asking tough questions: what is our ecological and social footprint?” A principal task of corporate leaders, now and in the future, is to move notions of sustainable development and enterprise to centre stage.
If you would like to know more on this, please leave a comment. The basic material was prepared under the auspices of the PCSB course, Cambridge Programme for Industry.