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‘Sweat that asset’: How CSOs can help accelerate circular electronics

A record 62 million tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2022.
Melodie Michel
‘Sweat that asset’: How CSOs can help accelerate circular electronics
Photo by Sahand Babali on Unsplash

Circularity is advancing slowly in the electronics industry, and getting to the next level will require Chief Sustainability Officers to break silos and shift consumer mindsets, says IT ecolabel TCO Certified.  

E-waste is one of the fastest-growing pollution problems facing our modern world: in 2022, a record 62 million tonnes of e-waste was produced, up 82% from 2010. In this context, improving circularity is one of the world’s top priorities – but progress remains slow.

In The Landscape of Circular Electronics Towards 2035, IT ecolabel TCO Certified (through its Circular Electronics Initiative) explores current and future trends likely to accelerate circularity in the sector, including regulatory efforts led by the EU, geopolitical stakes around mineral production and the growing availability of tracking and tracing methodologies.

It also highlights the need for “a comprehensive re-think of design, usage, and recycling practices, transcending traditional e-waste management strategies”.

“I think it's an issue of all hands on deck throughout the entire value chain,” Clare Hobby,  TCO’s Director of Purchaser Engagement, tells CSO Futures. “Traditionally in electronics and sustainability, it's all been kind of siloed: we have industry over here doing certain things on product design, then we have the buyers thinking ‘what do we do with our e-waste?’ and then we have the recovery or recycling segment. Everyone along that supply chain has to act and they are interdependent.”

Internal and external signalling for circular electronics

For her, overcoming this challenge requires both internal and external signalling from Chief Sustainability Officers. “Use your technology longer: 80 to 90% of your emissions are in that supply chain before that product lands on your desk, so that's where we need to prevent excess manufacturing. We need to extend that life at all points on the value chain, so CSOs need to sweat that asset,” she says.

By leading by example and extending the use of electronic devices, CSOs can also help to drive the mindset shift needed for circularity to become a reality.

“I was at a conference only six months ago and someone stood up and said, ‘I cannot put a refurbished product in front of my CEO, because that would be embarrassing’. And for I think a CSO to come in and say, I'm going to use a refurbished product or I'm going to extend the life of my computer by two more years and I challenge everyone in my team to do the same. This top level signalling internally is just so critical,” she added, noting that extending the initiative to all employees would allow CSOs to collect valuable data that can then be shared externally to engage suppliers and customers on the topic.

The report also notes that the B2B leasing market for IT equipment is growing and is expected to keep doing so, with businesses resorting to renting to increase flexibility and eliminate e-waste recycling fees.  

Electronics sector “ready” for CSDDD

With the recent approval of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) by the EU Parliament, companies with at least 1,000 employees and €450 million of annual turnover will soon have to eliminate environmental and human rights risks from their supply chains or face fines of up to 5% of turnover.

For Hobby, the electronics sector is ready for this obligation, though it will force firms to push “deeper and deeper into the supply chain” for visibility on emissions and human rights. She also warns that “one of the most important aspects of human rights due diligence is really verifying what's going on and not just putting out codes of conduct”.

Read also: Supply chain sustainability and social impact – more integration needed