Mark Schaffer

Years ago, large groups of people came together representing many different perspectives on electronics and sustainability. Academics and manufacturers – both large and small – sat with purchasers, recyclers, activists, environmentalists and others that were interested in making a leadership standard.

These environmental standards were initially developed to be a tool that the purchasers of electronics could use to make sure that the products they were buying were “green.” These green standards also set a bar for the electronics manufacturers, establishing a clear path to the “less bad” – balancing criteria on materials use, energy efficiency, packaging, recyclability, design and more to rate their products. This led to manufacturers making positive changes to their products, services and processes.

Now, however, manufacturers dominate the development of environmental standards so they better suit the status quo of the products already being made. The standards don’t provide leadership anymore. The standards, at best, establish a low bar for environmental leadership that lets the manufacturers pat themselves on the back for their “good work” while the purchasers of the products shake their heads at the lack of leadership and despair at the prospect of having to repair their electronic devices.

The recently published article “Electronics Standards Are in Need of Repair” by details both the good and bad of the various standards development processes and how things could be improved.

In terms of ways in which the standards could have led to valuable requirements enabling repair and recycling, here are some of the missed opportunities:

  • Ease of disassembly with minimal, or no, adhesives.
  • Standardized sharing of data that enables repair and reuse of the product.
  • Unrestricted access to spare parts, tools, diagnostics and firmware upgrades.
  • Tool-less battery removal.

But the standards don’t include strong language for these options. Through negotiation and repeated discussion, the manufacturers successfully weakened each of these options to the point where the language that is in the standard benefits no one … except the manufacturers.

There is a clear need for the standards, but as long as the fox is guarding the henhouse no leadership will come from them.

For these standards to establish strong leadership, the purchasers, academics, small businesses and regulators need to come together in the standards process and fully understand what it means to have a leadership standard – and be prepared to challenge the preconceptions of the large manufacturers in the process that the status quo is good enough. Only when all the stakeholders come together (and stay together) with the intent on true leadership will the standards improve.

This will take considerable commitment in both time and thought from all sides to produce a standard that can be used as the benchmark for truly sustainable stewardship for any electronic product.

Mark Schaffer is owner of consulting firm Schaffer Environmental LLC and is a former manager of environmental programs for Dell. Schaffer, who has been involved in standards development for the past 14 years, recently authored the report entitled “Electronics Standards Are in Need of Repair.”