Lina Fowler, Camellia Ye, Lin Shi
The products and services provided by ICT, or Information and Communications Technology, companies have altered the way we live, yet very little is known about their sustainability practices and environmental impacts. Their supply chains are deep, complex, and difficult to monitor due to their global nature and rapid development. There are few regulations that require mandatory reporting of the supply chain; for the most part, reporting is voluntary and not standardized.
In order to learn more about how ICT companies manage and communicate their sustainable-sourcing practices (or SSPs), we assembled a set of companies from the Bloomberg Terminal dataset with public-facing sustainability disclosures, which formed about 10% of all ICT companies. Our goal was to manually code, with NVivo software, 20% of the dataset. For 164 companies, we collected their reports on their social and environmental supply chain practices from 2015 and beyond, and if that was not available, we looked for any company web pages with sustainability-related information. The codebook was developed based on ICT-specific literature and a prior large-scale study in a different sector (Seuring & Müller, 2008). Throughout the coding process, the codebook was iteratively refined. In the first phase of coding, each company was coded by both coders to set standardized coding practices and ensure reliability.
In the second phase, companies were independently coded and inter-coder reliability tests were administered weekly. Coders regularly cross-checked coding quality through reliability tests. We found that 83.4% of companies use at least one SSP. However, the scope and the rigour of these practices are limited. Only 7.2% apply strictly to raw material producers and 1.5% to 1st tier suppliers. In most cases, the specific tier of the SSP is not specified. Furthermore, the most common SSPs are internal standards, which are up to the individual company to define, implement, and regulate. However, the overarching trends we see in ICT private policy are likely indicators of what is to come in green tech public policy, including circular economy practices and e-waste regulation. While many companies are taking great initiatives to lower their carbon footprint of their products at the use phase and in their data centers, only 1.1% of energy programs are implemented in the 1st tier and sub tier despite manufacturing accounting for 70-80% of a device’s carbon footprint over its lifetime.
However, we recognize that the ICT sector is broad. Many sub-categories, such as Software and Services, lack a physical, discernible supply chain and thus cannot implement standard SSPs. Our findings give insight into ICT companies and their SSPs, highlighting the limitations and opportunities of corporate practices to address their impacts on the larger world.