Lina Fowler: Investigating THE INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY (ICT) SECTOR SUPPLY CHAIN Sustainability Initiatives and its policy implications

Authors

Lina Fowler, Camellia Ye, Lin Shi

Abstract

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. 

4 Comments on “Lina Fowler: Investigating THE INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY (ICT) SECTOR SUPPLY CHAIN Sustainability Initiatives and its policy implications

  1. Hi Lina,

    Great presentation! I really loved the way you were able to overlay yourself on your PowerPoint – so cool! I also loved how you and Camellia tag teamed the presentation like that!

    I thought it was so interesting how many companies don’t have e-waste policies (and made me think of this article I read this weekend: https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/27572/20201005/apple-sues-recycling-partner.htm).

    You mentioned that the US has just begun talking about federal e-waste policies, are there other countries that have already starting tackling these issues? Are there any countries that are particularly “good” or “bad” in terms of their SSPs, or is it very variable since it is mostly done on a company to company basis?

    • Hi Bianca! Thank you for your encouraging words and questions.

      A common framework used by both companies we coded in English and in Chinese was the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Some of those 17 goals overlap with the SSPs that we included in our codebook. In terms of differences, since there were more East Asia-based companies upstream in the supply chain, their SSP initiatives were more focused on conflict-free sourcing, workplace safety risks, etc. The smaller companies downstream in the U.S. generally did not extend their corporate responsibility as far up the supply chain as larger companies, which tended to have the bandwidth to include a complete life-cycle analysis from raw material supplier to end-of-life practices.

      Regarding e-waste, Taiwan is generally known for their strong recycling culture, and e-waste is no exception, as the standard benchmark is to recycle 75% of production. We saw these recycling initiatives especially in the Taiwan-based semiconductor companies. A few of the companies did adopt the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive mostly seen integrated into national laws of European countries. The WEEE Directive internalizes product end-of-life cost by designating the company as responsible for environmentally-friendly disposal or refurbishment at no cost to the consumer.

  2. Congratulations. Such an interesting project. From the beginning I wasn’t sure what you were going to learn and it looks like you did some good work. You learned about coding text-based data. What was most surprising for you as you read the policies?
    (and what did you use to record your video? it looks great!)

    • Hi Jenny, thank you for your feedback!
      As I read through company private policies, an interesting observation was the range of implementation described in each report, varying for each Sustainable Sourcing Practice as indicated in our codebook. I thought that capturing this variation could serve useful in data analysis. We then tracked this range of each SSP coded, ranging from from “statement” (corporate pledges, general mission statements) to “tracking” (operationalized metrics of renewable energy generated, water saved, etc.) and “iterative policymaking” (change in company standard based on success level of SSP implementation).

      A future area of analysis could be observing if a correlation exists between allotted company budget toward sustainability initiatives and their implementation levels, or category of service within the ICT and implementation levels.

      I used the Zoom green screen feature with the slides as backgrounds!

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