Electronics Industry Slow to Move the Needle on Water

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With headline-making historic droughts in California, Taiwan and other parts of the world, there’s no denying our current global water crisis. Yet, when it comes to how corporations are mitigating their water risks, some industries are quicker to respond than others.

“There’s a deafening silence in the electronics industry around water,” said Jason Morrison, director of the corporate sustainability program at the Pacific Institute. “The electronics industry has somewhat disowned water. It might be an issue for someone in their supply chain, but not their issue. There needs to be more ownership around water, and electronics companies need to use their influence to improve performance in their supply chains.”

Unlike other water-intensive industries like beverages and apparel, the global electronics industry has been slow to make innovative strides at scale that address water scarcity, pollution and weak water governance.

Water is a vital resource in the electronics industry, with the vast majority of the industry’s water footprint connected to the manufacture of semiconductors – those miniature electronic circuits with transistors that make our cell phones, laptops and cars function. For perspective: It takes approximately 2,200 gallons of water, including 1,500 gallons of ultra-pure water, to create one integrated circuit on a 30-centimeter wafer – and one computer can contain a multitude of those little wafers, or chips.

Beyond being water intensive, the electronics manufacturing process also produces toxic chemical-laden wastewater that can harm local ecosystems and communities if not discharged properly. This aspect of the manufacturing process is of concern to many, especially because most tech companies now manufacture their products in Asia and Pacific Rim nations, where lenient environmental codes prevail.

“A lot of companies have off-shored manufacturing, so there’s a need for electronics companies that are buyers of chips to really work with their suppliers and help them develop strong water management policies,” said Brooke Barton, senior program director of the water program at Ceres. “Today’s consumer doesn’t see environmental and water stewardship as ending at a factory’s gates – it really does need to extend to the supply chain.”

Organizations such as the Green Electronics CouncilElectronic Industry Citizenship CoalitionCeres, Pacific Institute and CDP are working with electronics companies to help them move the needle on sustainable water management practices.

Some companies, such as Intel, which was one of the first companies to sign the CEO Water Mandate, are proactively leading the industry in water stewardship, while the majority of the industry has fallen behind the curve in mitigating water-related risks.

“By the time companies get a topic on their radar … they already have a crisis they have to manage,” Morrison said. “Most of the companies that take action on water, more times than not they have been burned by water, in the form of drought. When it’s related to cost in the supply chain, that’s when they move. The business case is pronounced when water is not around or prices spike – those companies tend to move quickly.”

Let’s hope mega electronics companies (and their suppliers) don’t have to wait for water conditions to get worse before they amp up their water stewardship efforts – and start talking about it with consumers. In the meantime, vote with your dollar by choosing electronics that are ranked against environmental standards like water stewardship and certified by a third party, such as EPEAT.

Image credit: Andrew Magill via Flickr

Nayelli Gonzalez

Nayelli Gonzalez is Managing Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships at Conveners.org, a capacity building organization that supports the growing ecosystem of impact-focused conveners, accelerators, and mappers. A sustainability innovation strategist and storyteller dedicated to purpose-driven work, Nayelli has advised startups, nonprofits, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies to drive engagement and amplify positive impact in the world. She's a trained journalist with an MBA who writes on sustainable business and social impact trends for a variety of publications.