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BK Blog Post
Posted by Pamela Gordon, CEO, Technology Forecasters Inc..
Pamela J. Gordon is CEO of Technology Forecasters Inc., keynoter on profitable sustainability, and co-developer of ProductDesign21.
Most people wouldn’t imagine that last week’s acquisition of Annie’s Homegrown, Inc. (natural and organic packaged foods) by General Mills (Cheerios and Betty Crocker) could portend changes in the electronics industry. But the food-industry’s trend of conventional giants investing in healthier ingredients and sustainable practices — to make up lost market share — is both relevant and challenging for the tech industry.
Industry Participants Couldn’t Have Imagined this Either
In January 2014, Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich publicly promised that every Intel microprocessor will be conflict-free. Five years ago, few would have believed a prediction that the USA Securities and Exchange Commission would require companies to track the treatment of workers at the raw-material level, and 20 years ago only the Europeans knew that regulators would restrict substances in electronics. But with RoHS and REACH and numerous other such restrictions starting in 2006, most tech executives now accept that substance disclosure is part of doing business.
Unlike packaged food, electronic products are not sold with ingredients plainly listed on the package. Even if substances were listed, consumers wouldn’t be able to make sense of them. And how could you make an organic printed-circuit board, anyway?
The Challenge and a Tool to Meet It: LCAs
Let’s say a “conventional” electronics giant wanted to spend the $820 million that General Mills spent on Annie’s to invest in electronic products that are benign to people and planet. The giant’s executives recognize consumer and legislative trends toward sustainability, and don’t want to get tangled in conventional spaghetti when other companies’ gluten-free quinoa sells much more heartily. How would that electronics-giant’s management confidently discern which electronics are measurably better in these ways?
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an excellent methodology for objectively comparing electronic products’ impacts on human and environmental health as products move from raw materials through component fabrication, assembly, use, and post-use. (Case study.)
Advantages Over Packaged Foods
When moving to healthier products, here’s where the electronics industry has an edge over packaged foods: Design for Environment and Life Cycle Assessments help electronic-product designers to reduce cost of goods sold, shorten expensive transportation routes, and deliver greater functionality at lower operating costs. At this point, many organic food ingredients are still priced higher than their chemical-laden counterparts, but as organics replace conventional foods’ market share, this too will change. (See Walmart’s new lower-cost organic food.)
Reduce Risk; Increase Brand Trust
LCAs also can reduce risks of non-compliance to regulations: materials, components, and products designed after an LCA assessment help to protect revenue by embedding compliance with RoHS, REACH, ErP, etc. Of course, the legislative push is only getting stronger as more governments (e.g. China, India, and many others) concerned over global warming, climate change, electronics waste, and depleted natural resources enact laws to protect their citizens and sustain their economies.
Manufacturers that consistently prove life-cycle improvements through conducting objective LCAs can earn the market’s trust for responsibility and safety. Customers are becoming more suspicious about companies’ vague and unsubstantiated “green-wash” claims. Purchasers are becoming more savvy about a product’s CO2-emission reductions in one life-cycle stage (such as through in-use energy reductions) and egregious increases of CO2 emissions in other life-cycle stages (such as mining, processing, transporting, and wasting far more materials).
Experience LCA During Your Next Snack of Organic Cinnamon Grahams
This month, we made it easier to experiment with the LCA tool EcoFly Simple. Click here then select ‘Guest Account’ to explore 3 examples of LCA (more information about experimenting with the EcoFly LCA)
The Last Bite (or Byte)
I invite you to have the last word on LCAs’ role in differentiating the electronics industry’s equivalent between organic and pesticide rich foods. Please comment below.