Sustainable Digitalization starts with Raw Materials – and your Smartphone

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26.05.2021 |

Information and communications technology (ICT) are part of everyday life. We all use our smartphones, tablets and computers daily, watch TV and are dependent on international digital networks.

But what's inside ICT products? Is the ICT supply chain responsible? What are the challenges in mining the minerals and manufacturing the goods? Where are the barriers to recycling and circular economy?

These and other related questions were discussed by a panel with participants from the private sector, policy and NGOs and experts during the online session "Responsible raw materials supply and production of ICT", May 19th. The Sector programme Extractives for Development in cooperation with the Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut) organized the session, which was part of the conference on May 19 and 20. The conference was jointly hosted by the Institute for Applied Ecology and Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GIZ GmbH.

The panel was composed of five experts from private sector, civil society and government:

  • Prof. Dr. Marie-Rose Bashwira, associate professor at Université Catholique de Bukavu in the DRC, scientific coordinator of the Research Centre on Gender and Development and researcher at Centre de Gestion Minière (CEGEMI) in Bukavu (DRC)
  • Alejandro Gonzalez, International coordinator of the Good Electronics Network, SOMO
  • Thea Kleinmagd, Circular material chains innovator, Fairphone 
  • Davide Polverini, Policy officer, DG Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, European Commission
  • Dr. Philip Schütte, Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR)
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Digitalization is needed - Digital technologies need raw materials 

Digitalization is dependent on raw materials input (primary sourcing or recycling). A smartphone contains more than 40 different minerals and metals. Panellists showed that at the very beginning of the ICT value chain, the mining of primary raw materials such as gold, tin or cobalt is often associated with social and ecological risks. Reports from the Democratic Republic of the Congo exemplify that mining of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (3TG) is associated with conflict financing. Several international standards, initiatives and policies address risks in the mining sector. A very prominent example is the EU Conflict Minerals Regulation which requires EU importers of 3TG to implement due diligence standards and ensure responsible sourcing. However, panellists also pointed out that despite all the risks associated with mining, a well-managed mining sector provides the opportunity to generate significant revenue and mobilise domestic resources in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Recycling quotas need to improve 

Recycling of raw materials is an important measure to reduce waste and act more climate friendly. However, recycling has not yet reached its full potential and will not sufficiently cover the increasing demand for certain raw materials in the ICT sector. Therefore, the main supply of these raw materials comes from mining. The importance of a responsible supply chain which respects the environment and human rights was emphasized by all panellists.

Responsible manufacturing and accompanying policies  

Panellists reflected on the working conditions in manufacturing ICT products. Many workers suffer from unstable employment and the use of temporary contracts, low wages and lack of unions and collective bargaining rights.

In addition to production circumstances, the way in which ICT products are designed plays a major role in their sustainability. International regulations like the EU Ecodesign Directive are referring to issues like (1) product durability (e.g. protection from water and dust, battery accessibility, availability of updates), (2) reparability (ability to be disassembled, availability of priority spare parts), (3) preparation for reuse (data deletion and transfer functionalities), (4) the battery endurance and capacity. Everyone agreed, regulations of this kind, which create and harmonize minimum standards, help to bring about sustainable changes in the markets.

At the end, the panel summarized that private companies, especially big tech firms, and their manufacturers have a responsibility to improve the situation along the whole ICT-supply chain. Policy makers shall guide them with regulations that cover product-design, mining, manufacturing the end-of-life usage/recycling. But also we - the customers - have a role to play. We can ask for more responsible smartphones and return old devices to the circular economy. And we should ask ourselves whether we always must have the latest device.

For further information please contact Johannes Lohmeyer.

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