IT and electronics are sectors that can play a significant role in global sustainability. However, they are also sectors with a substantial environmental impact. That's why Hedgehog Company focuses on these sectors (among others) and has already supported many organisations in their journey towards sustainability. Colleague Rik Wessels shares his experiences and insights.
Why is sustainability important for the IT and electronics sectors?
IT and electronics are enormous industries; almost everyone interacts with them daily. We live in an increasingly digital society, where electronic devices are becoming more prevalent, and ICT usage continues to grow. This isn't just for businesses, but also on a personal level. The number of digital devices we own is on the rise, including digital watches, smartwatches, screens, monitors, and headphones. On average, a Dutch household owns 131 electronic devices. This is a considerable number!
Furthermore, electronics and IT structures form the foundation for many other sectors, as many people need them to do their work. For instance, we are conducting this interview via video call, both on our laptops. Given the extensive use of IT and electronics, these sectors have significant potential for sustainability. Innovations and sustainable choices in these sectors can have a ripple effect on other industries. This makes it a sector where a substantial impact can be made, and it's important to be aware of this.
Which organisations does Hedgehog Company support in these sectors?
These organisations primarily consist of hardware manufacturers, refurbishers, or sellers. Some have established their own production chains, while others purchase hardware and sell it further. This includes all sorts of devices and accessories: laptops, headphones, keyboards, mice, webcams, and so on.
These organisations often want to understand the exact extent of their environmental impact and where in the product lifecycle the most significant impact occurs. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which assesses the impact at every stage of a product's life, provides these insights, enabling them to reduce their impact.
Companies that do not deal in hardware but are IT service providers can also be supported. For example, in determining their company's environmental footprint or carbon dioxide (CO2) impact. Or if an organisation wants to know the energy consumption for servers and cloud services. We can also provide advice on how organisations can comply with impending legislation, such as the Green Deal or CSRD.
What motivates these organisations to become more sustainable?
There are various reasons. Awareness of sustainability is increasing, and manufacturers are considering the impact of their products. Sometimes, it's driven by intrinsic motivation; an organisation wants to embrace sustainability voluntarily. Often, organisations want to meet the demands of their customers, who are increasingly looking for sustainable products or impact statements. Organisations can no longer simply claim a product is "sustainable" without well-founded promises.
Some organisations also don't want to fall behind their competitors, who are taking steps in sustainability. For example, Trust approached us after seeing that their competitor, Logitech, was working on this. Logitech lists the exact CO2 impact of their products on their packaging.
So, we calculated the impact of a product with primary plastic versus different types of recycled plastic. It became evident that recycled plastic has much less environmental impact than primary plastic. Once you know that, the transition becomes straightforward, and it's valuable to communicate this.
What insights does an LCA provide?
In IT and electronics, the impact appears primarily in the PCB (Printed Circuit Board), in the user phase, and in the plastics (product housing and packaging). The environmental impact of the PCB is high due to all the rare earth metals incorporated into it. However, manufacturers often cannot opt for a more sustainable alternative because these metals are essential for the functioning of the chips. Nevertheless, innovations in these PCBs contribute to making devices more energy-efficient and, consequently, more sustainable.
IT and electronics are sectors where the user phase has a significant impact since everything needs to be charged. When considering the product's lifecycle, we observe that, for some products, the impact of the user phase is even more crucial than the production of the product itself. Sometimes, the impact is not where you would initially expect it; a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) provides new and unexpected insights.
Energy efficiency in the product is crucial because this impact is essentially not from the producer, but does fall under scope 3 emissions. You need to consider this when, for example, examining the carbon footprint of your company. If, for instance, you manufacture a computer mouse with minimal impact in production but significant energy consumption during use, you still contribute to a significant amount of emissions.
Adjustments in the production process can also result in cost benefits for the organisation. When we did the calculations for Trust, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, affecting oil prices. This made the switch to plastic recycling a good choice, reducing the need for primary plastic.
What advice would you give to IT and electronics organisations?
"You can't manage, what you can't measure" because this reveals where your impact originates and its exact magnitude. Once you know where you stand, you can determine where you want to go. There is a lot of upcoming legislation regarding sustainability, product impact, and packaging. For example, the forthcoming EU legislation on Green claims will require manufacturers to substantiate their sustainability claims. Otherwise, it's considered greenwashing.
In the case of the Digital Product Passport, consumer electronics is one of the first three sectors that must comply. I would recommend starting now to meet future legislation. This will save you a lot of time, money, and last-minute stress.