Most of you will own at least one if not several personal electronic goods, be it a phone, a laptop, a tablet or a TV and most people will also upgrade their goods on a regular basis as they tend to become quickly obsolete, in some cases, in only a matter of months. But what happens to these unwanted goods, which become known as electronic waste (e-waste) and where do they end up?
ATI teamed up with Edward Scott-Clarke to produce a documentary film called “E-Life” www.elifefilm.com, which I urge you to watch and it explores these questions and how we as investors are looking to combat them.
Driven by our consumer lifestyles, the amount of e-waste produced is growing at a rapid pace and every year huge quantities of electronic waste, (e-waste) is being illegally dumped in developing countries. Unlike our society who is quick to throw away old or dysfunctional goods, workers in these countries look to mend and recycle as much as they possibly can in order to make money, but with little regulation or safety around their methods there are hugely negative environmental and health impacts.
E-waste contains highly toxic heavy metals which these people are exposed to on a daily basis; this, combined with burning the unwanted plastic is poisoning workers as well as the people living in and around these enormous e-waste dumps in many developing countries.
In order to combat this growing problem we need solution providers and this is where we see huge potential for investors.
This throw away culture needs to change and products need to be designed to be attractive and easy to use but also:
By designing products which take into account the whole lifecycle, including the end of life would potentially reduce the pace at which e-waste is accumulating as well as provide a meaningfully safer way of reusing our finite resources. Despite a number of initiatives this clearly isn’t happening enough.
However there are companies doing just that. One of these is Fairphone, an innovative company based in Holland. Fairphone designs mobile phones in a modular manner that enables you to very easily repair and upgrade all the components (such as the camera, or the moving parts that fail first) in order to increase their product life.
Unfortunately, Fairphone shares are not listed on a stock exchange - so we aren’t able to invest in it. However most of the manufacturers and sellers of personal electronic goods are listed and as producers of these products, they should ultimately be responsible for their disposal. It is not OK for these global brands to suggest the disposal of their products is somehow not their problem.
As investors, we can encourage these businesses to improve how they make their products to incorporate better maintenance and upgrading, as well as making it much easier to reuse or recycle the components at the end of their useful life. In addition, they should be looking for innovative ways to re-use and recycle their products and also to implement safer disposal. After all, they produced this toxic junk and it has their name on it - literally.
There are listed waste management companies that pick up, sort, recycle and dispose of general waste, such as, Viridor (part of Pennon Water), Biffa, China Everbright International, et al - but this isn’t e-waste focused. They legitimately manage waste streams, mostly in developed markets. But, regulated disposal is not in itself a guarantee that this e-waste doesn’t go on to be illegally exported to developing countries (where it costs less to dispose of). It is worth challenging these waste companies to commit to not (illegally) exporting e-waste to developing countries and ensure this is enforced throughout their supply chain.
This issue is an important reminder to investors that there are lots of unsavoury things that theoretically can’t happen; because, for example it’s illegal; but in reality are happening – in supply chains or with goods made by companies we might be invested in. As a proactive investor, you should be challenging the management teams of the companies you are invested in, that are making electronic goods to get on top of this. Reactive investors will do nothing.
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