Seven years ago today, I boarded a Virgin Airways flight from London Heathrow to San Francisco armed with a one-way ticket, a quaint English accent, and all the unbounded optimism that accompanies a promising new stage of life. I was headed west to work for BSR, tasked with engaging the world’s largest technology companies in their efforts to become more sustainable. I’d never been to the United States before, but from all I’d read about San Francisco, I’d clearly hit the jackpot.
Fast forward seven years and I’m moving to a new, equally engaging role at BSR, handing over my portfolio of work to Vijay Kanal, BSR’s new director of our Information and Communications Technology (ICT) practice. In light of this transition, I’ve reflected on how the ICT industry’s approach to sustainability has shifted over the past several years. Here I offer what I believe to be the three most significant developments that I’ve had the privilege to witness, and the corresponding areas where significant improvement is required.
- The growth of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and management of supply chain impacts. When I started out in the ICT industry in 1999, there wasn’t even one single industry supply chain code. Today more than 50 ICT companies participate in the EICC to push high labor, environmental, and ethics standards into their supply chain. What has impressed me most is how the EICC has grown from its initial focus on a single code of conduct designed to advance innovative approaches to tackling myriad, complex issues such as carbon reporting, conflict minerals, and water use.
- The launch of the Global Network Initiative (GNI). In today’s world, vast ICT infrastructures and extensive flows of information are natural features of modern life. But this information pervasiveness brings with it new risks and opportunities for the human rights of freedom of expression and privacy. The decision by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to collaborate with human rights groups, academics, and investors to define new principles for the ICT industry in the digital age was a brave one, resulting in new industry norms where previously none existed. The GNI has also established a new community of tech-savvy human rights activists and human rights-savvy tech companies. The significance of the GNI’s Principles and its community building will continue to grow as technology increasingly defines our modern lives.
- Robust understanding of the climate change mitigation potential of ICT. The ICT industry has long been convinced that its technology has the potential to be part of the climate change solution. But it took the excellent Smart 2020 report from the Climate Group and the Global eSustainability Initiative to set out how, why, and by how much. This informative analysis should set the roadmap for years to come.
While much has been achieved in seven years, with each of these advances comes significant shortcomings. There is a great deal that can be improved over the next seven years.
- Addressing systemic issues that undermine improvements in the supply chain. It is an unfortunate reality that changes in product specification, lead time, and order volume at the top of the chain can have a significant impact on labor and environmental conditions lower down the chain. It is also true that labor and environmental law remains unenforced in many locations around the world. Collaborative efforts between companies and stakeholders to address these challenges are desperately needed for real improvements in manufacturing standards envisioned by the EICC to be realized.
- Engaging the whole ICT industry to protect freedom of expression and privacy online. Risks to human rights exist across the whole ICT ecosystem—not just a handful of internet brands. One of my biggest disappointments over recent years has been the reluctance (with honorable exceptions) of telecoms companies, IT services companies, telecoms equipment manufacturers, and consumer electronics companies to engage in the human rights dialogue in a meaningful way. The GNI can lower the barrier by simplifying (not weakening) its accountability and governance mechanisms for sure—but success will require a much higher level of commitment from the industry as a whole.
- Turning the opportunities described in the Smart 2020 report into reality. The ICT industry should make good on its great narrative about how technology can help address climate change through the wide-scale provision of innovative products and services. Though progress is being made, there are still gaps to fill. And rather than speaking among ourselves on endless green IT panels, we should commit to more interaction with non-ICT companies on how ICT can be used as a climate solution.
My list could be longer for sure. For example, hats off to the mobile technology sector for its magnificent role in the economic development of emerging markets. Another big win for us all is the increased transparency of ICT sector sustainability reports.
So seven years on, was my unbounded optimism justified? To be employed to advance the causes one believes in—and in doing so work with the businesses and organizations that will either solve or destroy those causes—is a privilege that I will forever be grateful for. But whether the industry succeeds in becoming a true enabler of sustainability and respecter of human rights remains in the balance.