Implementing environmentally friendly and socially responsible supply chains has been a recent focus in various industries but especially in consumer electronics. Many manufacturers have received bad publicity for poor labor practices and unsafe working conditions in overseas manufacturing facilities. Out of all the big tech companies, Apple has been at the center of attention for many of these issues and must continually makes changes to improve their supply chain and maintain a positive brand image. Although the treatments of workers, compensation, and living conditions have been called into question; the materials used in the manufacturing process are also an issue for workers, consumers, and the environment.
After receiving pressure from environmental and labor groups, Apple has recently banned the use of the toxic chemicals benzene and n-hexane in its late stage manufacturing process. These chemicals are commonly found in industrial cleaners and could cause health issues for workers regularly exposed to them. According to a report by Apple, the chemicals were in use at 4 out of 22 factories but at levels within accordance to Apple’s “Regulated Substances Specification” and "found no evidence of workers' health being put at risk." This follows an earlier change in Apple’s supply chain in 2009 when Apple eliminated polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardant (BFR) from laptops after Greenpeace targeted Apple over their recycling polices and toxic substances used in manufacturing. The heavy metals mercury and arsenic have also been removed from their products over the past few years as well as the toxic element bromine.
While most of the harmful elements of a smartphone or other electronic device are not exposed while in use, the main issue surfaces when the item is no longer needed and discarded. When exposed to high heat and broken down in landfills, electronic devices release harmful chemicals that can work their way into water supplies. This is why Apple and many other companies have implemented recycling programs to help combat this problem and keep these old devices out of landfills. Aside from free recycling programs, there are also multiple ways for consumers to sell their old devices to resellers, third party recyclers, and even cell phone carriers such as Verizon. Despite these efforts, many devices still end up in the trash and the recycling programs are sometimes questioned by environmental groups. According to a 2010 study by the EPA, only 8% of mobile devices are recycled. The EPA also reports that 50 to 80 percent of electronics that are collected for recycling in the U.S. are shipped to developing countries where child labor and unhealthy practices are used to remove valuable metals from the e-waste.
Waiting for an activist group to petition your company or an undercover employee to reveal unsafe working conditions and harmful materials is not the best way to find opportunities for improvement. In order to stay up to date on sourcing and manufacturing practices, companies need to constantly evaluate their supply chain for potential hazards that would cause harm to their employees and brand image. In order to accomplish this, companies must dedicate time to market research and stay up to date on manufacturing trends, environmental and health studies, new manufacturing processes, and what other industry leaders are doing. Attending industry events, subscribing to blogs and newsletters, and having a strong supplier relationship which allows for an open dialogue with suppliers are all good ways to stay up to date on the current trends. Proactively identifying a need for change allows companies to identify alternate materials or suppliers that can provide environmentally safe product components for manufacturing electronic devices.