RoHS and Beyond

RoHS and Beyond

What's next from the European Union after WEEE and RoHS?

WEEE and RoHS are the most recent environmental product directives from the European Union. WEEE (the directive of Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment), which took effect in August 2005, is designed to tackle the waste stream of electrical and electronic equipment and complements EU measures on landfill and incineration of waste.. RoHS (the Restriction on Hazardous Substances) took effect on July 1, 2006, bans the placing on the EU market of new electrical and electronic equipment containing more than agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, and other potentially hazardous materials.

With one third of global electronic sales in the EU, these directives have rippled through the global tech industry, from the well-known name brand companies to the many large and small firms in their outsourced supply chains. But these directives will matter for all companies, not just those in the information and computer technology (ICT) industry.

Coming next:
  • EuP, the directive on Energy Using Products, effective Aug. 11, 2007, requires producers to design and track products according to cradle-to-cradle "life chain." According to Martin Charter, each design phase will be assessed, where relevant, for resource consumption, anticipated waste generation, emissions and other impacts (including noise), and possibilities for reuse, recycling, and material recovery.

  • REACH, the directive on Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (effective date not yet specified), will reverse the presumption of innocence in traditional chemical regulation, requiring manufacturers to prove that chemicals are safe -- and to publicly post toxicity data. One third of the tens of thousands of chemicals in global commerce may ultimately be restricted. That will obviously affect any business that uses chemicals -- which is to say all of us.
While many U.S. firms have played a waiting game in relation to WEEE and RoHS, according to Pam Gordon of TFI, complaining at lack of specific information on implementation schemes; European firms, in contrast, took the design initiative instead of waiting for prescriptive details. Why the waiting game? One culprit, as I wrote last year, is a "pervasive and deeply wrong-headed assumption: that designing and delivering better, more efficient, less toxic, more recyclable products would necessarily cost more money and yield less profit."

It's demonstrably not true, of course, though it's still conventional wisdom. The good news in that: any company that can see through the myth, to design and deliver EU compliant products that are "better, more efficient, less toxic, more recyclable products would necessarily cost more money" gains a leg up in the marketplace. And the ones that understand the drivers well enough to predict where the EU will go next gain the additional advantage of being able to get their design processes ahead of the wave.

Where will the EU go next? "At this moment there are no additional product specific pieces of legislation introducing producer responsibility to the pipeline," Rosalinde van der Vlies, Administrator for the European Commission told Gordon on June 6, 2006. But I'm not betting on that, and I don't suggest you do either -- regardless of what industry you're in.

If you're in ICT, note that other jurisdictions -- and companies -- are restricting (or preparing to restrict) more substances than the six on the EU list. (What substances? The clues have long been hiding in plain sight, in the Natural Step system conditions) If you're not, pressures from climate change, energy prices, water supply constraints, and more -- in addition to EU directives -- may affect your markets' receptivity to your products.

You can wait until they do -- at which time it may be too late for your company to respond effectively. I'd say here's a better bet:
  1. Understand the drivers.
  2. Drop the assumptions. Face the facts.
  3. Design what works -- before it's demanded
  4. Steer by the logic, not the thresholds and regulations
By the way, my personal guess is that the next significant product directive from the EU may not be "environmental." Try labor practices.

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Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc. -- offering advisory services and tools that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise. Sign up online to receive his monthly column via email. Read Gil's blog here.