How Electronics Companies Can Slow China's Water Pollution


Photo by MSVG via Flickr Creative Commons

One of the major components of gauging how green an electronics manufacturer really is, is watching their supply chain. Earning certifications such as EPEAT or ranking higher on the Greenpeace green electronics guide, all mean having a transparent supply chain and sourcing materials in as environmentally and socially responsible way as possible. Companies like HP have even released supply chain emissions data, an important move though likely rife with inaccuracies since calculations like these have so many variables. However, a new report from BSR and the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition reveals a simpler way to effect change through supply chains. Many electronics suppliers have terrible records of wastewater management, and there's no larger sampling ground for this report than in China. Changing how a company handles its suppliers in China could have an important impact on the health of water supplies.
GreenBiz reports that Electronics Supply Networks and Water Pollution in China (PDF) "looks at the results of a supplier risk assessment conducted by 10 members of the EICC. The companies provided information about 640 suppliers to BSR, and the group checked those names against a public database of environmental violations.

"About 5 percent of the suppliers had environmental violations, with 20 percent of those companies having been penalized for multiple violations in recent years. One facility had been cited four times, all about its wastewater discharge, a warning that there are systemic problems with some suppliers."

It is no wonder that the rivers in China are some of the most polluted in the world. An additional problem is that other reports this year show that China's water supply is too small to support its growth rate, and that the supplies will continue to shrink. With so little water to go around, and most of it polluted beyond drinkability, it seems one of China's biggest issues in the very near future will be implementing water purification and wastewater treatment technologies. But right now, a major problem is getting companies to care, and do something about how their suppliers are producing goods.

Electronics companies are dependent on China for components for products, which means they'll have to step up and help if they want a future in China. The report from BSR outlines strategies for the companies concerned about water management among their suppliers. The recommendations for businesses who have suppliers in China include analyzing:

1. Suppliers that are the most "strategic" in terms of spending and importance to business. Importance to business may be higher for suppliers that produce components or products that generate the greatest revenues or profits for the company, and/or are used extensively for less tangible but equally important purposes, such as for branding;

2. Suppliers that have already been identified by the public, media, or NGO community as responsible for previous environmental offenses;

3. Suppliers known to have poor quality management or reporting systems; or

4. Suppliers that are financially unstable, maintain poor external relationships, or have a history of labor or environmental issues, ownership changes, and workforce disruptions.

The report also recommends companies look at how the components are made, and identifying suppliers based on their location as much as on what they produce, which would help ensure they pass up suppliers located in particularly environmentally sensitive areas. Creating performance expectations for suppliers, as well as working with other companies to boost overall industry performance are also recommended.

"With growing concerns globally and in China about access to water, more and more companies are developing proactive strategies to mitigate water risks," Laura Ediger, environmental manager at BSR and co-author of the report, said in a statement. "This study was designed to provide electronics companies with context on China's water challenges and an initial assessment of known supply chain risks, in order to give them an informed basis for effectively investing time and resources in improvement of supply chain performance."

Supply chains are a hazard for water sources, but so too is the end-of-life treatment of electronics when they end up in e-waste dumps, which is also a major issue in China. Overall, the electronics industry plays a large role in the management and health of water supplies within the country. Reports like this will hopefully help guide behaviors for more sustainable use of a precious resource.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Water Issues in China
Half of All China's Water Too Polluted to Drink
Toxic Spill at Chinese Copper Mine Kills Nearly 1,900 Tons of Fish
China's Water Pollution Twice the Officially Listed Levels
Water Shortages Could Slow China's Growth

Tags: China | Electronics | Pollution | Water Crisis