Close up of a circuit board

Consumer Electronics — Show Me the Ingredients

December 31st, 2013

Those attending next week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas can feast their eyes on 3,200 exhibitors’ sparkling new products. But attendees won’t have visibility to these products’ ingredient lists. In fact, surprisingly few electronics companies can answer completely and definitely the question, “What’s in my products?”

With orders of magnitude more “ingredients” than in your typical morning cereal or shampoo, electronic products have long, global supply chains with frequent releases of new and modified products — all hindering brand companies’ abilities to answer this question quickly and well.

So, why bother to answer the question at all?

Find important reasons for tech companies to start addressing their products’ complete material content in Tony Kingsbury’s and my (Pamela Gordon’s) article in GreenBiz (Jan. 2, 2014). You’ll see there a new reason presented by California’s Safer Consumer Products Regulation. SCP, which took effect on Oct. 1, 2013, may provide the most compelling reason of all to diligently track — once and for all time — electronic products’ multitude of substances.

And when addressing product-substance requirements, such as SCP, start at the Design Phase. You see, complying with SCP is not a quick fix at the supply-chain level. It requires a longer time frame, starting with all the facets of design that affect financial and environmental performance. (Think of how long it takes to design out Brominated and phthalates.)

Designers need to be trained in environmental impacts of substances from raw materials through manufacturing, transportation, use-phase, and end of life. A comprehensive DfE training program, emphasizes opportunities for cost savings during all of these phases through alternative substances and efficient design.

There is good news about SCP from the perspective of designing in alternative materials: It doesn’t rush to replace chemicals or materials with alternatives that are as bad or worse. For example, the EU’s RoHS Directive restricts lead from electronics, yet the tin that has replaced lead in solder creates environmental issues as well. Questionable trade-offs will be less likely under California’s SCP regulations. A thorough alternatives assessment is required, including analyzing tradeoffs of using one material compared to another.

Who knows? Maybe ingredient lists will be the “must see” at CES 2015.

To learn more about responsible supply-chain sourcing, visit the Technology Forecasters, Inc. page.


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