“The extremely complex ICT production chain does serious damage to both people and planet. Electronics companies must take their share of the responsibility. That starts by working towards greater transparency of the chain, and bundling the purchasing power of large customers can help here. This can be the first step towards setting sustainability requirements and improving working and living conditions in the chain,” says Kim Claes from Fair ICT Flanders.
ICT and sustainability: big challenges, lots of possibilities
The Fair ICT Flanders project helps colleges and universities, private companies and local authorities to take concrete steps towards a more sustainable policy for the purchase and use of ICT. With the support of the Flemish government, those behind the project – CATAPA, Bond Beter Leefmilieu and Ondernemers voor Ondernemers – are setting up educational networks and research. They are also developing examples that can lead the way, and supporting eight pilot organisations.
Fair in the broadest sense
Although the project is called Fair ICT Flanders, coordinator Kim Claes speaks consistently about “fair and circular ICT”. “We strive for both ecological and social justice in the ICT production chain. We’ve noticed that the ecological aspect threatens to fade into the background when you talk about ‘fair’, and that the social aspect gets neglected when you talk about ‘circular’. We consciously take both into account.”
Fair ICT Flanders helps organisations to set sustainability requirements for their ICT purchases that match their mission and vision. Because there is no single, clear label that proves: ‘this appliance is fully sustainable’.
“We have examined the existing standards, certificates and monitoring systems and found that each has its own focus,” Kim confirms. “A label is very useful for an organisation. It monitors whether a supplier does what it promises. But there are also downsides to labels. For example, TCO Certified and Blue Angel are very reliable certifiers, but they do not have standards for all devices. As an IT purchaser you have to be aware of this before you demand that a supplier offers a certain label.”
“In short: a label is just one of the possible ways to make your ICT more sustainable. You can also include your own criteria in specifications, collaborate with organisations that have the necessary know-how or engage in a dialogue with your potential suppliers.” That sometimes forms a barrier, Kim admits. If as an organisation you want to set sustainability requirements, the purchasing process becomes more complex. ICT buyers already know very well what they need from a technical point of view, but now also have to familiarise themselves with sustainability so that they can ask suppliers the right questions.
In addition, they of course want to become more sustainable without affecting the quality of their ICT systems. “You don’t always need the very latest devices to achieve this. But not all ICT buyers are convinced of that yet.” Fair ICT Flanders is also contributing to this change in mindset.
Why does ICT need to be fair & circular?
From mining, through assembly to consumption and waste processing, there is serious work to be done in every step of the ICT production chain. “So there is also a lot we can do,” says Kim Claes with a hopeful outlook.
In mining and assembly plants, human rights violations and even modern slavery are more the rule than the exception. Workers’ health is also often put at risk. “And then you have the sad fact that the mining of some minerals perpetuates violent conflict because it provides income to armed groups,” says Kim Claes.
The environment also suffers greatly from both mining and the production of ICT. “Factories are highly dependent on fossil fuels. Did you know that the energy needed since 2007 to make smartphones alone is equivalent to the full annual consumption of a huge country like India?”
In addition, the consumer must take responsibility. “Laptops, smartphones, etc. are discarded far too quickly, on average after 1.5 to 2 years. The mountain of waste is visibly growing. Eighty percent of this e-waste is not recycled, but ends up in illegal landfills in Africa or Asia. Relatively speaking, this makes the gigantic impact production has even greater. Studies show that the CO2 impact drops by as much as 28% if you use a laptop for six years instead of four. The costs decrease by the same amount if you make a device last three years more. So there is also a financial incentive to getting more use out of a device,” adds Kim Claes.
Finally, the lack of transparency from electronics manufacturers is a major problem. “The brands usually don’t own the factories that make their equipment and parts. And they also take too few measures to tackle environmental and social risks. That also has to change,” says Kim.
ICT purchasers have the power to change things
Governments can force companies to take responsibility. But as a consumer you also have more power than you think.
Especially if you buy not just one device, but as a large organisation are continuously investing in ICT. Kim Claes: “The more large consumers demand fair and circular ICT, the more producers will have to take this into account.”
Certainly if those buyers align their demand to a certain extent, so that the electronics companies receive an unambiguous message. “The NGO Electronics Watch is doing very valuable work in that area,” Kim explains. “All public purchasers who are a member of this network include the same standard clauses in their requests for quotations. This has more of an impact on an electronics giant than one local Belgian government asking for something.”
In addition, Electronics Watch works closely with local organisations in countries that make ICT products. Especially in China, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. This gives them a good view of the conditions on the work floor.
Kim Claes: “Collaboration with Electronics Watch is one of the ways in which, for example, the City of Ghent wants to make its ICT policy more sustainable in the future. The city council is already being more mindful of fair ICT purchases and is developing a clear reuse policy. To consider all the options, they are also working together with Fair ICT Flanders, CATAPA and the VVSG (Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities, ed.).”
How Fair ICT Flanders is supporting companies towards a more sustainable ICT policy
Since mid-2019, Fair ICT Flanders has been supporting and advising thirty organisations on how to make their ICT policy and use more sustainable. After an open call to local authorities, higher education institutions and private companies, they started with an informative process that lasted just under a year.
Kim Claes: “We first found out what ICT managers needed and what they already knew about the problems in the production chain. We used that information to set up a learning path and educate the participants in a series of workshops and webinars.”
What are the major problems in the ICT production chain? How do you create support for fair and circular ICT within your organisation? How do you set legal requirements in this area for a public contract? and Which labels and standards are reliable? It is all covered in the ‘learning network’. In addition, Fair ICT Flanders also invites a certification organisation and Electronics Watch to speak.
“While the process is running, we also conduct research. We bundle all information in a clear and user-friendly toolbox for the participating organisations. Because that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks: many organisations want to go for fair ICT, but lack the concrete tools to get started.”
Sustainable ICT in practice
Some of the 30 participating organisations have now committed themselves to becoming a pilot organisation and to take effective steps. “They are committed to a long-term investment of time and resources to achieve a sustainable ICT approach. So that good intentions don’t grind to a halt when the collaboration with Fair ICT Flanders comes to an end,” says Kim. Fair ICT Flanders supports them in putting what they learn into practice. And in a way that suits them.
“For example, in addition to a strong sustainability policy for extending the lifespan of their devices, the University of Leuven is putting a strong focus on human rights. They included a clause about this in the contract with their supplier. They continue to monitor this through ongoing dialogue with the supplier. Finally, KU Leuven shares the knowledge acquired within and outside the university. By including knowledge about the chain in scientific research, the university can also positively influence how ICT equipment is produced in the long term,” explains Kim.
“One private company that is doing well is the Van Hoecke furniture company. An interesting example, because computers, smartphones, printers and other ICT devices nowadays also play an indispensable role in non-ICT companies. This SME from Sint-Niklaas consciously chooses to use devices for longer and to invest more in repair. In addition, Van Hoecke works together with Recupel to have discarded appliances recycled.”
As another example, Ghent University has requested a TCO Certified label for its latest supplier contract for laptops, among other things. In addition, Ghent University is developing a whole policy on extending the lifespan of their ICT devices. They are also strongly committed to getting staff and students engaged in fair and circular ICT.
All the good examples Kim gives were nominated for the first Fair ICT Award. “With this award we want to highlight organisations that are taking steps towards more sustainable ICT policy and use. And what’s more: what they do inspires other companies and organisations.” Fair ICT Flanders presents all the nominees on its website and Facebook page. “Because of course it’s not just the winner that sets a good example.”
After the award ceremony, Fair ICT Flanders is taking the next step with the pilot organisations. Kim Claes: “From 2021, we will focus on creating interaction between them. A meeting between the ICT people from the Flemish universities has already been planned. We see a lot of goodwill everywhere and are therefore bringing them together to exchange experiences.”
In addition, Fair ICT Flanders strives to involve more smaller companies and organisations, such as Van Hoecke and the municipal council of Laakdal. “Smaller organisations are more likely to feel that a sustainable ICT policy requires a lot of input without them being able to have much impact. The impact is indeed smaller because they purchase less ICT, but it is also possible to invest in extending the lifespan of devices in even the smallest of companies. And this is also a very valuable contribution,” says Kim.
Steps you can already take in your organisation
- The most sustainable device is the one you don’t buy. So check whether you can use devices more efficiently. Is a new device really necessary? Can you place one large printer in a central place in your office instead of 20 smaller ones at individual desks? “Don’t think in terms of appliances, but in terms of a solution for what you need,” suggests Kim. “Also pay attention to maintaining and protecting devices, by using for example laptop sleeves and screen protectors. And above all: keep devices in use for longer,” says Kim. “That is the best strategy to reduce CO2 emissions and the wider impact of ICT devices.”
- Give devices a second life when you don’t need them anymore. You can sell them second-hand, donate them to second-hand organisations or pass them on to employees within your own organisation who can still make use of them. “For example, various city councils pass on the computers they use for admin to local primary schools,” says Kim.
- Repair, upgrade or opt for refurbished. “An appliance that has become slow is too often immediately discarded. Adding extra storage capacity or replacing the battery is a better option,” says Kim. “Unfortunately, some devices, especially smartphones, are difficult to repair. The producers – and legislators – still have a long way to go there.” You can also have your devices refurbished (or buy refurbished devices). These are professionally overhauled and refurbished devices, perfect for a few more years of use.
- Buy devices you can repair. This way you get more use out of them. “In your specifications you can set requirements about the replaceability and availability of the most important parts, such as the battery and the motherboard. It is best to start by ruling out devices where you can’t keep updating the RAM, SSD or hard disk in advance.”
- Enter a dialogue with suppliers. Talk about circularity, sustainability and human rights violations in the production chain. “By asking critical questions, you encourage ICT producers to monitor and improve their chain. We also recommend formalising in contracts that manufacturers apply Human Rights Due Diligence throughout their supply chains,” suggests Kim.
- Collect discarded devices for recycling. “Increasing their collection percentage is still a major challenge for many organisations. But as important as good recycling is, really consider it the last option,” says Kim. “Breaking down an appliance into its material parts and making a new appliance out of them still causes a lot of emissions.”