Surveys show that price and performance are still the most important consumer criteria when selecting a mobile device.1 However, increasing commoditization coupled with growing environmental concerns are placing sustainability front and center among considerations for manufacturers that hope to differentiate their products and demonstrate good corporate stewardship.
Pursuing sustainability initiatives in the electronics industry can be a complicated and resource-intensive process. With so many materials and components, offshore sourcing and price-sensitive consumers involved, sustainability can still be a secondary factor when it comes to the design and manufacture of technology devices. In this article, we will consider the context for sustainability initiatives in the electronics industry. We will examine the challenges facing manufacturers as they consider environmental initiatives, as well as the benefits of being proactive. We will outline criteria for a comprehensive approach to sustainability and consider how and why third party certification works and what aspects it analyzes.
The Rising Tide of Mobile Devices
Mobile devices are quickly shifting from a cutting-edge technology tool to an absolute necessity of modern life. There will be an estimated 7.3 billion cell phone accounts in use by the end of 2014.2 That means the number of mobile devices in use will outpace the world’s population.
While the industry is pursuing plenty of game-changing innovation such as improved battery life, infrared ports for controlling home equipment and enhanced voice recognition, mobile device manufacturers still face increased commoditization, thinning margins and downward price pressures. Business Insider Intelligence forecasts that the average selling price for a handset in four years will be just $150.3 That’s compared with an average selling price of $372 in 2013, according to the International Data Corporation.4 This signals that manufacturers will be striving to differentiate their goods and wring additional cost savings out of materials and manufacturing processes.
At the same time, consumers are mindful of the pervasiveness of mobile devices and their close contact with these devices for extended periods of time. Some are questioning the potential health, safety and environmental impacts these devices could have long-term.
From the manufacturers’ perspective, there is increased demand to incorporate and report on sustainability initiatives within their companies from both consumers and non-government organizations.
But the road to sustainability is a long, unpaved one, littered with obstacles such as unverified claims by competitors, supply chain management challenges, regulatory concerns, as well as competing cost and performance objectives. At what point does the benefit of pursuing sustainability outweigh the challenges?
A Look at the Problem: e-Waste, e-Waste Everywhere
The statistics on mobile usage above paint a clear picture of the sheer volume of devices being manufactured and ultimately discarded. The United States alone dumps an estimated 300 million to 400 million electronic items per year, and less than 20% of that e-waste is recycled.5 One forecast, based on data gathered by United Nations organizations, governments, and non-government and science organizations in a partnership known as the “Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative,” predicts e-waste generation will swell by a third in the next five years, led by waste output from the United States and China.6
Not much interpretation is needed to understand that this kind of exponential growth in the waste stream simply can’t continue. Consumers, the community and the industries making up electronics manufacturing must work together to stem the creation of e-waste through responsible device manufacture, use and disposal.
While e-waste is the most visible environmental problem presented by the growing prevalence of mobile devices, there are other pressing concerns as well.
Potentially hazardous materials and chemicals used in mobile phones, as well as in other technology devices, can present human health risks for both the consumer and workers. These elements can also leach into soil, air and water if not disposed of correctly, presenting widespread health problems to humans and ecosystems.
Regulations limiting use of potentially toxic materials are requiring manufacturers to take stock of the materials used in their products and quantitatively track their use.
The European Commission (EC) has put forward some of the most aggressive regulations to address the environmental impact of electrical and electronic equipment. The RoHS Directive (2002/95/EC) and the recast (2011/65/EU) regulates specific hazardous substances (below), limiting parts per million (ppm) concentrations by weight of each homogeneous material that can be mechanically separated.
- Cadmium (Cd) — 0.01% (100 ppm)
- Lead (Pb) — 0.1% (1000 ppm)
- Mercury (Hg) — 0.1% (1000 ppm)
- Hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) — 0.1% (1000 ppm)
- Polybrominated diphenyls (PBB) — 0.1% (1000 ppm)
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) — 0.1% (1000 ppm)
The impact of the EU’s RoHS Directive on the worldwide electronics industry has been significant. At the tactical level, the regulation has required development of new solders and new soldering process for manufacturing printed wiring board (PWB) assemblies, the selection of alternate materials for solder terminations of components, the qualification of alternate types of flame retardants and the need to identify replacements for other banned substances.
In order to comply with RoHS, manufacturers have taken a closer look at the materials used in production of their products, have put in place processes to evaluate and measure materials used by their suppliers and have increased visibility into their supply chains.
Other countries, including China and South Korea, have introduced similar regulations. With Proposition 65, the state of California requires strict labeling of products that contain any of a given list of potentially hazardous substances above a certain threshold concentration for each substance covered. Legislation of this kind will continue to put increasing pressure on manufacturers to fully understand and measure the comprehensive health, safety and environmental impact of their products.
Clearly electronics present environmental challenges that need to be addressed. Yet pinpointing the best approach for pursuing sustainability in a comprehensive manner can be challenging.
It is valuable, first, to consider key aspects of a comprehensive sustainability program. Sustainability is more than just a series of stand-alone environmental programs, independently initiated in the name of good corporate stewardship. While certainly these efforts represent a step in the right direction, they fail to truly evaluate and measure a product’s full impact on human health and the environment. A good sustainability program takes a truly comprehensive approach in evaluating and measuring multiple attributes, at every stage of the product’s life as well as considering direct and indirect environmental impact from the product itself as well as the process used to create it. Identification of key product hot spots, energy, materials content, end of life or social justice in the supply chain, is a key step in improving the performance of a product. Specifically considering the product materials use, energy use, supply chain issues such as working conditions and materials source, final disposition and recycling and corporate governance, the sustainability of the organization as a whole are all part of sustainability of a product.
Product and Materials
Electronic devices are made of materials that include precious, finite resources such as gold, copper and silver. Encouraging recycled content helps to relieve some of the pressure on natural resources and also promotes the recovery of these materials at end-of-life. Some chemical elements present in devices may have potentially negative impacts on human health when not recovered correctly or during manufacture. Some electronics may emit harmful chemicals or ultrafine particles during use, which can present a detrimental human health impact. Finally, throughout their useful life, these products all consume energy.
The process involved in manufacturing electronics includes extracting raw materials from the earth, transporting these materials, fabrication and assembly, and distributing these products to retail stores where they finally reach the consumer. Consider all of the environmental implications along this journey: the impact on the local economy and land where raw materials are mined, resources such as water used during the manufacturing process and waste products created or released into the air or landfills as a result of manufacturing and fossil fuels used for transport, all along the supply chain. In addition there can be considerable social considerations from the supply chain such as conflict minerals and working conditions.
The environmental impacts of packaging can be similar to those of the item being packaged and range from sourcing of packaging materials, to fabrication and transportation of those materials and finally, to end-of-life disposal of the packaging. Considerations include use of minimal materials, recyclability or ease of decomposition, carbon footprint, use of renewable resource materials and others.
Of particular importance where electronics are concerned is disposal at the end of their life. Electronics destined for the landfill can leach toxic materials into surrounding air, soil and water. If we just consider the mobile phone category, there is significant contribution to the e-Waste stream. In 2010, the EPA estimates more than 152 million mobile devices were disposed of – exceeding 350,000 mobile phones being discarded every day7.
If not recycled or disposed of properly, cell phones can create significant environmental issues. So called informal recycling, where the product is burned to recover the precious metals, can release considerable hazardous substances to the local environment. It is possible to both design for a more recyclable electronics product and to encourage proper recycling by established recycling companies. Key are design features such as easy removal of user data for privacy reasons, easy disassembly and simple large plastic parts free of contamination. All of these can make a product more profitable to recycle and will even encourage recycling. Even during responsible recycling there is the potential for the creation of dioxins and furans which are eliminated through emissions controls. By careful choice of materials and encouraging recycling some of the hazards at the end of life can be avoided.
Considered in their full context, each and every electronic or high-tech device has a significant impact on the environment over the course of its full lifecycle. These are just a few of the considerations. Sustainability programs that measure and evaluate comprehensive impact are the most effective, impactful and defensible. So let’s consider, step-by-step, what a comprehensive program looks like.
Third Party Certifications Offer a Running Start
In order to address sustainability in the electronics space, one option is to tackle the issue along the entire lifecycle of the product. For those who choose this option, one of many certification options available to the manufacturers of mobile phones is ECOLOGO Certification to UL 110, Sustainability for Mobile Phones Certification. This, and other certifications such as EPEAT, EcoMark (Japan) and Ecma / IT Eco-Declaration, are designed to offer third party validation of sustainable practices and a recognizable label to consumers that desire to select dependably environmentally responsible products. Standards such as UL 110 address issues along the entire lifecycle of the product, including materials, manufacturing and operations, health and environment, packaging, energy use and end-of-life management and durability. Alongside these end-to-end standards, there are also single-attribute certifications and claim validations options open to manufacturers in the electronic space.
For manufacturers seeking to embark on the journey of increased sustainability, certification programs provide a ready-made framework, access to expertise and third-party claims validation that offer companies a running start when it comes to pursuing comprehensive sustainability.
How Certification Works
Third-party testing and certification bodies assist manufacturers by providing scientific expertise in assessing and auditing the wide range of environmental criteria required to meet a variety of certifications and standards.
For the ECOLOGO standard for mobile devices, for example, categories are based on a combination of life cycle stages and key performance areas, making for a comprehensive evaluation of sustainability. To streamline efforts and ensure broad compliance, chemicals of risk and levels are harmonized across key standards like RoHS, Proposition 65 and other international standards. This means that earned certification automatically signals compliance with common standards required to conduct business internationally.
In order to earn certification, manufacturers must meet baseline requirements provided in each category and earn supplemental points based on meeting several optional criteria. Standard and gold certifications are issued based on the final number of points earned.
A fundamental tenet of environmentalism, no sustainability initiative is complete without an evaluation of energy use and conservation. Lifecycle standards such as UL’s ECOLOGO also evaluate devices for energy conservation and charging efficiency. Single-aspect standards, such as Energy Star, are uniquely focused on energy use.
Health and Environment
Environmentally sensitive materials are audited to minimize risk to human health. It restricts the use of the potentially harmful substances specified in RoHS. This category also calls for the evaluation of PVCs and dermal contact testing to evaluate the impact of materials that may come into contact with normal device usage.
To encourage recycling of devices, this category awards points to products that are easily deconstructable into components that can be separated for recycling, reuse or disposal. Product Stewardship also reviews features that extend the usable life of a product. This includes availability of replacement parts, easy battery replacement and data erasure capabilities so that phones can easily be securely staged for reuse. Single attribute environmental claim validations in this area could include recycled content claims, bio-based materials claims and zero-waste claims.
Packaging is evaluated for hazardous materials. Recycled and recyclable packaging is encouraged. Inks and adhesives, which can emit potentially harmful volatile organic compounds into the air, are also considered.
Manufacturing and Operation
There is much that can be done in the area of manufacturing and overall company operations. With multi-attribute environmental certifications, supply chain management and operations are audited for social compliance with fair labor practices and other social components. The corporation as a whole is evaluated for a corporate social responsibility plan and executing to the plan, for environmental management systems and for adherence to corporate social responsibility policies,
Some certification programs include this category, which allows the product to receive credit for innovative environmental efforts and programs that are not covered in the other evaluation categories. The intent is to award activities that exhibit exceptional performance above and beyond those listed in the standard’s requirements. These may include things like use of renewable energy in the manufacturing process, significant waste reduction in manufacturing or water conservation efforts.
Navigating the Challenges
Even when neatly organized into easily understandable segments, managing effective execution of sustainability efforts to achieve certification is no easy process. Sustainability programs that are comprehensive in nature present significant challenges to product design and engineering teams. Here are some strategic steps that manufacturers can put in place to help support the adoption of sustainability initiatives.
Design for Sustainability
Creating sustainable products all starts with better design. Sustainability is not an element that can be sprinkled in last-minute, but a discipline that must be incorporated into the every step of the design process and into the corporate culture.
Perhaps the most obvious example is thinking about end-of-life when a product is designed on paper. Designing a product for better end-of-life performance means building it for easy deconstruction, separation and recycling. Perhaps never before introduced as a required product feature, the earlier it can be brought to the drawing table as a design requirement for new product, the easier it is to accomplish.
While the final product doesn’t typically expose the user to hazardous substances careful choice of components and materials can also have a substantial impact on worker exposure to hazardous substances. Using a water-based paint or coating instead of a solvent based system can avoid considerable emissions. Or using an alternative to spray coating can improve materials use efficiency. Even better would be to avoid coatings completely if possible. Another example is considering energy use during manufacture and use during the design process. When designing product attributes, including the requirements for energy efficiency at the outset allows for downstream design, production and testing to evaluate energy use throughout the process.
Designing for sustainability means making sustainability a priority from the earliest stages of the process. It is simply a commitment to making sustainability a priority and factoring it in as a requirement from the outset, rather than an afterthought as a product is going to market.
Internal Costing of Raw Materials
Many factors, such as natural disasters, droughts, shortages, civil unrest in nations worldwide, put access to raw materials at risk. Additionally, many commodities – such as water – are obtained at a cost much lower than their value to the company. Manufacturers gain immense benefit from these raw materials, without which their products could not be produced and distributed. Some companies are undertaking efforts to develop financial models that price raw materials closer to their actual value to the company rather than their commodity price. This exercise helps companies evaluate the true value of raw materials and to understand the volatilities to the business should these materials become unavailable for any reason. In some cases, it leads companies to proactively reduce their dependence on key materials, to diversify their sources or to identify substitutes. This exercise is one that generates corporate-wide awareness of the value of raw materials and often results in a reduction in waste and use of precious natural resources wherever possible.
Implement better tracking mechanisms. In the age of big data, everything is quantitative. The difficulties associated with tracking metrics by hand (in a spreadsheet) are quickly going by the wayside, as never before have such powerful tracking tools or so much data been available.
Measuring makes it easier to understand and report on the true environmental impact of everything from product contents to waste produced to resources used in the manufacturing process.
Implementing tracking systems often has ancillary benefits, like increased visibility into operations, supply chain and virtually every other aspect of the business, resulting in a win-win for the company.
In many cases, efforts to gather the data to submit for certification audit have resulted in discoveries of overpayments, operational inefficiencies and even additional revenue streams as recycled materials were gathered and sold. Measuring is the first step to understanding, and understanding is the first step required to start taking action.
The Bottom Line Benefits
Pursuing a course of environmental responsibility is the right thing for electronics manufacturers to do. For employees, customers, the company and the earth – doing business in ways that offers promise and hope of continued life and prosperity for generations to come is a powerful incentive all its own. However, there is also a compelling business case for sustainability. Cost savings are all but guaranteed, based on improved efficiencies, identification of alternative resources and driving out unnecessary overuse of materials. Ultimately, much of sustainability is about reducing waste, which also reduces cost – a benefit that falls straight to the bottom line.
Intangibles such as improved brand image, product differentiation and increased goodwill toward the company are measurable in customer loyalty and positive PR, also driving sales to support the bottom line.
Reduced liability as a result of reducing the toxicity of products and finding healthier materials substitutes can yield immense savings in legal fees and damages.
Similar to the rising tide of mobile device usage serving as an engine of the electronics sector, a rising tide of sustainability is coming. Savvy companies will prepare and use the changing winds to adjust their sails and project their businesses into a healthy, profitable and sustainable future.
- The Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) hosts sustainability tools and resources for electronics manufacturers.
- The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) resources for sustainability, including its CEA 2013 Sustainability Report
- NC State University’s Supply Chain Resource Cooperative (SCRC) High-Tech and Electronics Industry Sustainability Report
- Information and to view the specific standards for UL’s ECOLOGO certification for electronics
- http://www.accenture.com/SiteCollectionDocuments/PDF/2013-Accenture-Consumer-Electronics-Products-and-Services-Usage-Report.pdf, pg. 13; retrieved on March 5, 2014.
- Silicon India, “World to have more cell phone accounts than people by 2014,” January 2, 2013.
- Business Insider, “Innovation Isn’t Over In Smartphones, As Companies Compete To Build Great, Mass-Market Cheap Devices,” January 27, 2014.
- Pew Research Center, “The Falling Price of a Smartphone,” September 10, 2013.
- GreenChip, “The Electronic Waste Dilemma.”
- LiveScience, “World’s E-waste to Grow 33% by 2017, Says Global Report,” Tanya Lewis, December 15, 2013.
- http://www.electronicstakeback.com/wp-content/uploads/Facts_and_Figures_on_EWaste_and_Recycling.pdf, Retrieved on March 5, 2014.
|William F. Hoffman III, Ph.D.
William F. Hoffman III (Bill) manages the UL Environment science team working on the technical basis for the development of standards and guidance for standards including the green chemistry and sustainable chemistry aspects of product environmental performance, validation of claims and product certification. The goal of this work is to provide a strong technical basis to product environmental performance by using a deep scientific analysis of the environmental impact of a product while also assuring companies producing the product are using environmentally progressive manufacturing methods. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.