How to make electronics trade groups drive sustainability

How to make electronics trade groups drive sustainability

Circuit board image by Scorpp via Shutterstock.

Industry associations exist for nearly every industry and career, from paint manufacturing to pet sitters, coffee production to crane operators and explosives engineers to culinary engineers.

If you work in the electronics hardware industry and your goal is to further corporate environmental sustainability, which industry associations will give you the most effective methods and tools for reducing environmental impacts? How can you drive forward the associations that fall short of sustainability leadership?

A burning question

Members spend a significant amount of money and staff time to get the benefits of an industry association, including annual dues, research reports, courses, webinars, conferences, additional fees and volunteer committees.

Our burning question: Which electronics industry associations will provide the greatest benefits and resources to meet sustainability goals and actually improve the environment? And for those not progressing, what can members do about it?

Seek answers from members

To answer this question, we approached executives at several electronics industry associations to see who would be interested in having us hold candid member interviews to objectively assess their associations’ efficacy for bringing about environmental benefits in the tech industry.

Sanjay Huprikar, vice president of member success at the IPC Association Connecting Electronics Industries, answered the call and commissioned the study. IPC serves the printed board and electronics assembly industries, and originally stood for Interconnecting and Packaging Electronic Circuits.

We interviewed 16 active IPC members who also belong to other electronics industry associations. These include the Surface Mount Technology Association, International Microelectronics Assembly and Packaging Society, International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International. We asked the members about the efficacy of these associations in terms of environmental protection and other goals, such as member development and standards.

These associations are comparable in that they provide forums for people in electronic hardware industries, platforms for new technologies and responses — although in different ways — to the increasing global regulations addressing electronics hardware.

Members' sustainability benefits, in their own words

We found that electronics industry associations promise members environmental protection services, but members say they actually receive more advice on regulatory compliance than on forward-thinking sustainability roadmaps for collectively taking the electronics industry beyond the regulations du jour.

Fortunately, some electronics industry associations are moving beyond regulations-only charters. The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative has a subchapter to motivate the industry to pursue ecodesign, to be an ecodesign resource for members, and to identify gaps or needs in this space.

The following are broad categories of environmental offerings provided by industry associations, along with sample, anonymous comments we elicited during our recent study.

Compliance awareness and lobbying: Many industry associations make a point of advising members on and exposing them to current and upcoming global environmental regulations, and some also represent the industry in legislative discussions:

"IPC is the lobbying force to make sure we’re all aware of current regulations, and what regulations are coming."

Environmental protection beyond compliance: Some associations help members raise their own sustainability goals above the level of current regulations by giving them workable frameworks, such as the codes of conduct from the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition and the Global Care Initiative from Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI).

"SEMI is effective in environmental protection — perhaps because semiconductor companies have horrible chemicals in their processes."

Industry roadmaps as overlays for member companies’ sustainability goals: Tech companies face many similar challenges for ascertaining which sustainability goals will be relevant and possible in the next five to 10 years. Creating feasible industrywide roadmaps requires intercompany collaboration and buy-in. The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative, for example, publishes a bi-annual technology roadmap with information on ecodesign, materials, energy efficiency and other impact areas.

“I’ve been at the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative roadmapping meetings where they consider everything coming down in the next three to five years. From other associations, I have limited visibility of what’s coming down the roadmap — material sets, technologies. The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative is efficient at compiling information from all participants.”

Members are the experts

When considering joining an industry association to reduce the environmental impacts of your industry, first ask current members how the associations fare in terms of sustainability or scope of compliance. Find out if members have successfully raised the association's bar from regulatory catch-up to profitable sustainability leadership. It is helpful to have an honest assessment of where your company or division falls along the sustainability and compliance spectrum.

If your company needs to catch up to compliance requirements, or needs an edge to get ahead on regulatory requirements coming down the pipeline, associations can help you get training to meet those requirements.

Going beyond compliance requires internal work. Thus, for companies that want to move the needle in a positive direction for environmental protection, associations can provide opportunities to meet with other members at leading companies to discuss their innovative sustainability strategies.

“I participate on an association’s conflict minerals committee to see what’s going on. It gives me insight as to what the industry is into. I glean more information in the meeting than just appears in the issued documents. In the meeting you can pick up more pieces of the puzzle — not only on what’s right and wrong, but also on how to proceed.”

Companies with more advanced internal sustainability programs implore associations to be more open about government regulations instead of reflexively assuming that nothing good will come from government regulations:

“I see industry associations commenting on regulations, driven by self interest — the interest of the industry as they perceive it to be. Perhaps associations should be more open. See how creating industrywide platforms can be used as tools that make our jobs easier.”

Lead industry associations to the next sustainability levels

Associations have to represent an entire industry and therefore hesitate to go too far or promise too much. If you have really robust sustainability goals you have to “lobby” for this to be a priority at industry associations. Associations represent a great opportunity to effect widespread change an industry, and can give sustainability professionals a platform to lead other companies to embrace more sustainable practices, methodologies and standards. Associations will not necessarily push you to the next level, but you can raise the baseline through your involvement and commitment. Always make the argument in terms of the industry’s sustainability — read “profitability and continuity of the businesses.”

As environmental movements progress, customer demands increase and material resources become more constrained, associations will be forced to be bolder and more proactive to truly make the industry more sustainable.

In the end, industry associations are evolving organizations that are continually striving to meet the needs of their members, and in this case, member priorities will emphasize environmental goals and association activities will need to reflect that. Upon completion of the study, the IPC’s Huprikar said, “Actively listening to the members’ needs and then taking action on their behalf are the only sure pathways to sustaining the association for the long term.”

Circuit board image by Scorpp via Shutterstock.