Environmental footprints in silicon sands

Updated: Oct 14 2013, 14:40pm hrs
There is a Lufthansa flight which takes off every day from Bangalore. Via Frankfurt, it transports folks to the Silicon Valley and all over the world. It is known as the Bangalore Express, and is a preferred flight for tech industry executives, venture capitalists and others associated with the technology eco-system.

Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other technology giants have started locating their datacentres by rivers. Why These mammoth buildings, often covering square footage equal to 2-4 football fields, run thousands of computing devices and generate so much heat that river water is required to fuel their immense, power and water-hungry air-conditioning systems which prevent physical meltdowns of electronic circuits. For instance, in Oregon, Googles datacentre has cooling towers that go up four storeys. These buildings are the factories of the internet: they stop functioning and the internet shuts down. Its that simple.

Tin as a substance has always been associated with cans of baked beans and packaged fruits. Today, one of its major uses of tin is in electronics. Batteries, especially those used in cellphones (Lithium ion) are full of it. It is also an essential component in soldering together electronic components and so on. 30% of the worlds tin comes from two Indonesian islands: Bangka and Belitung. Here, illegal mining and child labour are rife. And an environmental catastrophe is in the making, if reports from various NGOs including Friends of the Earth are to be believed. Sub-soil has gone acidic and the water on the islands has been polluted to a point where even animals cannot consume it.

Closer to home, the pollution caused by diesel generators powering telecom towers has been well documented. And keep in mind that if there are a billion cellphones on the planet, and even a fraction need to be charged every day, they are causing a huge spike in electricity consumption. The anecdotes above point to the next frontier for the electronics and IT industry: Environmental and social sustainability.

No one cared about polluting cars when there were only a few thousand running around in a select few cities. However, when they proliferated to every corner of the civilised world, this became an agenda item for practically every government and multilateral agency. As societies around the world digitise, these issues are bound to bubble up with increasing frequency and higher velocity for the electronics industry too.

To put it in perspective, 352 million PCs were shipped in 2012. This number was three times as many as in 2002. 240 million television sets were bought around the world in 2012. Mobile handset shipments raced passed the 1.5 billion mark. Thats a lot of plastic, metal, tin, rare minerals, and electricity consumption. The average 32 inch LCD TV consumers 80 watts when operational and bigger screen TVs can consume 3 to 4 times that amount.

As the industry goes through the natural cycle to reach a stage of maturity, and becomes an integral part of modern-day societies, it needs to step up and become more visible as a champion of sustainability. Aside from the social responsibility which comes with explosive growth, it is also good business.

Even at a unit level, companies can engage on the sustainability front and achieve wonderful things:

*Incorporate environmentally friendly standards and practices from the design stage of products. For example, lower power consumption processers in computing devices. Another example is eco-friendly packaging.

*Carry out regular environmental audits through the supply chain to ensure that pollution and other environmental norms are being adhered to, irrespective of which country the supplier is based in. Ethical practices will result in reputational benefits, burnish the brand and support the companys business in the long term.

*Practice absolute and complete zero tolerance towards child labour, as well as exploitation of factory workers in their suppliers factories.

*Eat your own dog-food: for a sector peddling technology, its amazing how many opportunities still exist within it to leverage, well, technology! For example, most technology companies could certainly leverage video conferencing technology more to reduce air travel.

Companies across the spectrum, yes, including Apple, are finding out that individuals and societies do care about their environmental and social consciousness. In the age where information travels every millisecond, a company neglects its responsibilities at its own peril.

On the other hand, other industries have shown that companies which pay genuine attention to sustainability and environmental responsibilities end up with greater respect and stronger market positions. ITC Hotels in India is clearly positioned as an environmental leader. Unilever has put sustainability dead centre of its future strategy and business agenda. Asian Paints is working closely with its suppliers to get their packaging and chemicals environmentally friendly-certified. Elon Musk of Tesla Motors has shown that even high performance electric cars can be soaring successes. The list goes on. Yet, when applies this lens to the electronics sector, the public consciousness only records Google and a handful of other companies who can be elevated to this rarefied status.

At an industry level, the opportunities to shift the environmental and sustainability orbit are even more compelling. Here are a few examples:

*Engage through global institutions such as the United Nations arms and NGOs to lobby governments in developing countries to implement existing environmental legislation more aggressively. For example, it should really be the job of the Indonesian government to ensure that tin mines are up to scratch, and not that of Apple or Samsung.

*Encourage the recycling of old mobile phones and other devices to minimise costs and risks associated with their disposal. Some companies such as Mazuma Mobile in the UK have built profitable re-cycling businesses. However, by and large, used printer cartridges, old decrepit mobile phones, outdated televisions and so on simply get thrown into the nearest garbage dump.

*If the alcohol industry can raise consciousness globally by asking us to drink responsibly, why cannot the electronics industry bring society to a paradigm of use carefully and dispose sensibly.

*The electronics industry today has crossed the $5 trillion mark in global revenue. This is a staggering number considering that the industry is barely two generations old.

Ubiquitous as soap, increasing affordable, consistently desirable and increasingly useful, electronic products are re-shaping societies, businesses and governments in ways which was unimaginable even ten years ago.

The time has come for it to step up and take leadership as a sustainability champion. The time is now!

Jaideep Mehta

The writer is vice-president and country manager IDC India