Why consumer electronics giants are flunking toxic phaseouts

Old computers and monitors stacked for recycling.

Ten years ago, some of the biggest names in the consumer electronics industry — Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Samsung, Apple and others — made ambitious public pledges to phase out the worst hazardous substances from all products. With the exception of Apple, the latest Greenpeace "Guide to Greener Electronics" reveals that most of these companies largely have failed to live up to those pledges.

As a former project leader for the Greenpeace campaign to create solutions to the electronic waste crisis, I have some thoughts on what I believe can be learned from these long-term trends in the electronics sector and the implications both for companies making new sustainability commitments and those striving to ensure their commitments match the scale of the challenges ahead.

Over the past decade, Greenpeace has campaigned for solutions to the e-waste crisis, focusing on a two-pronged approach: promoting the concept of producer responsibility for end-of-life products (so that materials can re-enter the production cycle) and the urgent need to change the way products are made, designing them to last longer and to eliminate the worst hazardous substances. This would ensure old consumer electronics products are safer, easier and cheaper to recycle responsibly.

Benefiting from European Union chemicals legislation, early progress was made. Samsung, then almost all major consumer electronics companies made public commitments to phase out brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinylchloride (PVC) between 2005 and 2007. Apple was the last to commit, but it embraced the most ambitious timeline: to eliminate those substances from all new products by 2009.

How have they done? Fast forward to 2017 and this one graphic (shown below) somewhat buried in the latest Greenpeace Guide shows how Acer, Dell, HP, LG, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony have failed to fully follow through on their phaseout commitments — with exemptions made for ongoing use of BFRs and PVC in certain parts or accessories.

Based on Greenpeace research, Amazon, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi do not currently have detox commitments. 

The success of Apple and Google shows that a complete phaseout of BFRs and PVC is possible, but the vast majority of the consumer electronics industry has failed to pull this off.

To be sure, there are some mitigating factors: Some early leaders such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson were affected by big shifts in market share since 2005. The PVC industry has ensured that almost all fire safety regulations for power cables heavily favor PVC use only. Low-cost Chinese brands such as Xiaomi and Vivo have gained market share without prioritizing any significant sustainability improvements. Moreover, subsequent revisions of the EU restriction on hazardous substances regulation did not ban BFRs and PVC from electronics.

But none of these factors represents an insurmountable barrier to phaseout. Samsung made $25.1 billion profit in 2016, but it has failed to phase out toxics entirely even eight years after Apple achieved that goal. Apple did the heavy lifting with regulators to get non-PVC power cables fire-safety approved in all markets. Yet Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer and others exclude still power cables from phaseout commitments. Power cables represent one of the biggest uses of PVC in consumer electronics but most companies remain unwilling to switch to PVC alternatives for power cables because of the small marginal cost increase involved with doing so.

Taking a step back from the specifics of the consumer electronics industry, what are the wider implications of these lackluster results for companies that have ambitious sustainability targets?

It takes trust: Building mutual trust between companies and civil society organizations is critical for achieving a sustainable future. When a company makes a public promise to make significant improvements, external stakeholders must trust that promises will be followed by action. Over-promising and under-delivering undermines trust in the willingness and ability of companies to tackle more challenging sustainability challenges. As the Dutch saying goes, "Trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback."

It takes a high-level roadmap: With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that most electronics companies made initial phaseout promises without prioritizing an action plan to reach that goal. During subsequent company engagement, one senior operations manager owned up to exactly the situation after his company made the initial promise in 2007, but in 2009 he stated it was now a top priority with a clear action roadmap. Despite that apparent internal reset, that same company still hasn’t completed its phaseout. In contrast, Apple’s initial commitment took longer, but came direct from the late Steve Jobs, and Apple clearly made it a priority across the entire company.

It takes endurance: Campaigning organizations cannot always sustain long-term corporate campaigns. Some electronics companies probably gambled that they could wait out the campaign and then, with attention focused elsewhere, either weaken or drop their commitments. But Greenpeace is back to highlight the inaction of many companies, exposing those companies to significant reputational risk.

Lessons for change makers

Important lessons are here for those campaigning to create change across industry sectors. When it began its original campaign, Greenpeace aimed to establish first movers and challenge other companies in a highly competitive market to raise the bar. Once companies had invested in finding alternatives, the idea was to push for them to create a level playing field by advocating for the phaseout of BFRs and PVC in European chemicals legislation.

Obviously, not all of this went according to plan: Companies have not followed Apple’s phaseout lead, and while some electronics companies advocated for improved regulation in a limited way, those efforts were not a powerful enough counterweight to heavy chemical industry lobbying. Zooming out again, from my perspective there are a couple of important lessons from this experience.

Aim for CEO-level commitment: All electronics company commitments were public, but only Apple made a CEO-level commitment in a personal letter from Steve Jobs in May 2007. It took an Apple fan-driven campaign to get that level of commitment, but Apple followed up and other companies did not. A CEO-level commitment to action turns sustainability into a personal leadership issue and increases the chances of follow-up action being prioritized across the company.

Beware the reverse domino effect: Positive domino effects, where companies rapidly follow competitors’ commitments, are critical to building momentum and increasing ambition in corporate campaigns. However the opposite effect is also a big risk. Once a company or sector perceives there is less external pressure and it sees competitors weakening or backtracking on promises, this can lead to an equally rapid retreat from ambitious targets.

Invest in long-term monitoring: To reduce the risk of weakening and backtracking on company commitments that have long-term deadlines, requires continued monitoring of commitments. This can be resource-intensive and unglamorous work. Building in a requirement for annual public reporting to company commitments can help, as can finding partners such as the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) that specializes in annual analysis of company disclosure on energy, water and deforestation.

Don’t be afraid to go back: Sometimes hard-won victories might turn out to be hollow or insufficient as situations change. Greenpeace has been constantly evolving key priorities for action in the electronics sector over more than 10 years. It's clear that the organization still needs to focus partly on hazardous phaseout, years after it seemed as if the industry had reached a critical mass to create irreversible phaseout of BFRs and PVC.   


Greenpeace puts pressure on Dell with a visual protest way back in 2010.

When the going gets tough

The problem of companies weakening and backtracking is, of course, not unique to the consumer electronics sector. As just one example, the Rainforest Action Network recently criticized Mars, Nestle and Hershey’s for weakening and delaying promised to phase out palm oil sourced from deforested land in Indonesia.

An increasing emphasis is being placed on voluntary corporate actions and commitments, especially in the context of climate change and the inadequate response of most governments. It is more important than ever to temper uncritical praise for new company commitments by looking at the track record of companies in addressing the biggest sustainability challenges.

There are plenty of positive success stories of progressive environmental change driven by companies that are worth celebrating. But just as important is the need to balance those with examining how and why some companies failed to live up to ambitious commitments so that valuable lessons can be learned.

Companies that set ambitious targets but then quietly weaken or drop those targets when the going gets tough are not only undermining their own credibility but also setting a dangerous precedent that sustainability promises are seen as paper promises that are disposable when business conditions are challenging.

To tackle climate change, create a circular, zero waste society and eradicate global poverty is definitely going to be tough going for business and the tough need to really get going to help solve these challenges.