In the wake of a number of exposés of the environmental and social impacts of high-tech supply chains, the timing couldn't be better for news from AT&T last week, announcing a new eco-rating system that aims to give shoppers easy access to information on how mobile phones affect the planet.
Developed by AT&T in partnership with Business for Social Responsibility, the new eco ratings -- which will go into effect later this year -- will track 15 different criteria for every post-paid mobile device that AT&T sells.
Those criteria range from packaging to limits on toxic chemicals to corporate sustainability reporting to manufacturing practices. Those data will be clearly presented on the packages of new phones, and a QR code on the box will take shoppers to a website that will present detailed information on each phone's score.
"There's going to be a lot of information available to consumers," explained Vijay Kanal, the director of BSR's Information and Communications Technology practice, in an interview last week. "And that was the purpose of AT&T launching this."
The move comes as shoppers increasingly want more information about how their products are made, and how those products affect people and the planet. For the tech sector, it's been a recurring theme in recent months, with heavy scrutiny being placed on Apple's manufacturing processes, as well as those of its key supplier, Foxconn.
Last week, ABC News aired an inside look at a Foxconn factory that makes iPads, particularly a spate of recent suicides and explosions at Foxconn factories. That report followed an an in-depth look from radio program This American Life at Apple's Chinese manufacturing practices, which itself followed a number of stories over the years concerning environmental and social issues from Apple's products. It all adds up to a burning demand for more information about not just Apple products, but the many gadgets we use every day.
"Increasingly, consumers are mindful of a product's impact on the environment," Jeff Bradley, senior vice president of Devices at AT&T Mobility, said in a statement. "Our new eco-rating system will make it easier for our customers to make more informed purchasing decisions."
Kanal said that the process of creating the rating system involved extensive interviews with companies and stakeholders across the electronics manufacturing industry.
"We started with over 100 different criteria, and ... solicited feedback from industry experts, and we settled on 50," Kanal explained. "We then narrowed that 50 further, based on their relevance to consumers. [For example,] could the consumer make a better decision based on these criteria? Was it important to them? Could manufacturers achieve this sort of thing, or will these criteria be out of reach for a number of years?"
The criteria are now, and likely will continue to be, something of a work in progress. AT&T is circulating the information about the 15 final criteria to its manufacturing partners and stakeholders, and may make minor tweaks to the final list prior to launch later this year.
But beyond 2012, Kanal said that there will likely be a larger revision in 18-24 months, one that will hopefully incorporate more of the social and human-rights elements of sustainability into the criteria, while continuing to step up the requirements for the environmental aspects as well.