25 years of raw materials over a coffee
A couple of weeks ago I got a question from our Marketing & Communications team to write a blog post on how we are working with substances and materials, circular economy, and reuse and recycling within the company. I found this to be a really broad topic. How could I catch the 25 years where Ericsson has been working with these issues in a short – and hopefully engaging – blog post?
In our recent sustainability report we talk about the year that has passed. To be more specific, we talk about our efficient use of raw materials, describe research studies on material footprints, how our processes look and our efforts related to producer responsibility and recycling.
However, behind what is described in the relatively short chapter on raw materials, lies many hours of hard work. So, I decided to gather my colleagues working with material issues and interview them over a cup of coffee – to find out about their views, drivers and priorities. On a sunny April day, we put these matters to rest at the new espresso machines in the lounge area of Ericsson HQ in Stockholm, Sweden.
There is more to a material footprint than just carbon emissions
"In general, Ericsson adopts a fact-based, life-cycle perspective as the basis for its work with sustainability issues", says Pernilla Bergmark from Ericsson Research. "By understanding what our impact is – both as a company but also our industry in general – we can focus on the issues that matter".
Richard Trankell, from Product Area Networks, adds that this can even offer cost-saving opportunities: "We need to make sure that our products impact the environment as little as possible. Further on, our customers expect us to have a credible and proactive agenda regarding chemicals and materials, particularly in light of increasing legal requirements worldwide. There are also opportunities with being more material efficient, that in many cases goes hand in hand with cost savings".
Andrea Fornara, Materials Specialist on group level, touches on the business benefits of the wider industry trend: "This is one of the topics within circular economy that is going from being a buzzword to a reality in many companies. A smart and sustainable choice of materials enables innovative solutions that reduce the use of critical raw materials, increase energy efficiency and allow for smaller, more performing products".
Pernilla continues with excitement by referencing a study they recently published on the overall materials footprint of the entire ICT sector, looking at usage, climate, depletion and toxicity perspectives. "This is a topic that has previously been under-researched, so we think that this study, although a first attempt, really adds to the understanding of the impacts related to the materials usage of the ICT industry, where the most impacting materials are gold and copper".
"An important insight while working with the materials footprint," Pernilla says,"was that while a carbon footprint is unambiguously defined as the life-cycle carbon emissions related to a product, there are in fact several ways to define the materials footprint. For this reason, we chose to study not only the amount of materials used by the ICT sector but also the associated carbon emissions, resource depletion and toxicity. Another major difference compared to calculating the carbon footprint is that there is less of a scientific consent when it comes to resource depletion and toxicity, so it was necessary to apply different methods in parallel".
Smart material choice benefits environment, product and cost
The discussion among us evolves and new cups of coffee are poured in our cups. We're coming back to the topic on our products and circularity, where the basis in our work with chemicals and materials is to 'know what we have'. That's why, since 1995, we have required all suppliers to declare material content.
A general trend we see is that requests for material information is increasing from both authorities and customers, for example, regarding the content of critical raw materials. The choice of materials in R&D plays an important role to improve the environmental impact and sustainability performance of our products.
For example, the carbon footprint of certain parts can be reduced by selecting materials that requires less energy to be produced and manufactured. New materials also play an important role, enabling innovative solutions that would increase the energy efficiency of the final product and enable more compact design.
The closing of the loop is to take back decommissioned products – the company's producer responsibility. Take back operations in ICT is going through a transformation leaving the linear thinking into a more circular approach. As Mikael Forsberg at Service Area Networks explains, "we as a company have a fantastic opportunity to contribute to a better reuse of products and materials and evolve current business models to better fit into the circular economy."
All in all, the environmental performance of a product is dependent of all its ingredients, where the choice of materials can impact the entire environmental performance of a product. Aspects where material choices can be important are energy performance, lower products weights impacting supply operations and cost efficiency as well as circular business models by enabling more flexible use of products. Smart use of- and increased research for innovative materials are therefore key components in making our products even more sustainable.
And, to apply wider perspective to our sector's role in the debate: Taken together with entertainment and media, ICT globally represents only 0,5% of relevant materials – though for some materials like indium, gallium and germanium, being a key player associated with 80-90% of overall yearly usage. The sector´s material usage stands for only 0.1% of global carbon emissions. However, beyond usage and carbon emissions, the sectors toxicity potential is calculated to around 3% and the resource depletion in the range of 13-48% depending on assessment method (Ericsson Sustainability Report).
While this may not cover everything in our extensive 25-year history in sustainability, I hope it has at least been engaging. If you have time, I recommend visiting the Ericsson sustainability pages to read the latest insights and activities in this area.
And, in case you were wondering, all coffee cups consumed in making this blog were, of course, reusable.
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