Make It Better: a new campaign for products that don’t cost the Earth
A few weeks ago I visited the Indonesian island of Bangka. About the size of Yorkshire, Bangka’s a mite as islands go, but a giant in one important respect: its contribution to the global tin trade. Intensive mining on the island, with its smaller neighbours and surrounding waters, is almost entirely responsible for making Indonesia the world’s largest exporter of tin. That might be good for some miners and make those in charge of government and mining company coffers smile, but it comes at a staggering cost to the environment and the many other communities that depend upon it.
I knew before my research trip that mining had made a mess of Bangka, but I was stunned by how visible this is. It’s bearing the brunt of a ‘tin rush’ that is trashing forests, devastating coral reefs and causing scores of deaths and injuries every year. You can see the testimonies of some of the affected people I met here, and also read about the situation in this article from this weekend's Guardian.
Bangka’s woes feature in Friends of the Earth’s new Make It Better campaign. This campaign tells the tales of some of our favourite products – how they’re designed and made, and what and whom they bump up against along the way. About half of all mined tin ends up as solder in electronic products. Pretty much anything with circuitry has it – from cars and fridges to games consoles and smartphones.
But it’s not tin’s fault. Products can be designed to use and re-use commodities like tin much more efficiently. That’s why our Make It Better campaign is also telling positive stories – of exciting new product designs that tread lightly on our over-burdened Earth and of companies taking a lead in improving their products and supply chains.
And that’s why we’re calling on the global smartphone mega-brands that almost certainly use Bangka’s tin both to use their influence to help improve things on the island and to get to work ensuring that all their products are designed with the environment in mind.
Who buys tin that’s trashing forests and coral?
The opaque world of international metals trading makes it nigh on impossible to map commodity flows with 100% confidence. Even so, Friends of the Earth’s investigation shows it’s almost certain tin from Bangka ends up in some of our favourite gadgets and gizmos made by market leaders such as Apple and Samsung, although they may not have known this or about the devastating effect of mining on the island. When we asked them whether they used tin from Bangka, they neither confirmed nor denied this (see page 20 of our report for full details).
But we can rewrite sad stories with happy endings, as anyone who’s seen Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ in the West End can sing at you. Technology companies could make more resource-efficient phones that reduce the damaging demand for new raw materials like Bangka’s tin. For example, as experts point out, phones could cut waste by 40% if designed to be more durable. Mobiles can be built from recycled and renewable materials – bamboo even – and designed for easy refurb, repair and upgrade. ‘Organic radical batteries’ that charge in just 30 seconds could save time and energy.
What about shoppers?
So does this mean shoppers should add ‘sustainable tin’ to a long list of things it’s up to them to consider before deciding what to buy?
Sure, everyone should consider their personal pressure on the planet. But there’s currently far too much talk from government and companies on what shoppers must do, and far too little on the role of companies in addressing the impacts of their own operations.
Far too little, too, on what governments must do to assist, enable and where necessary require businesses to ensure their operations are sustainable environmentally as well as economically.
The argument made by some politicians and businesses that all we need do is “educate the consumer” to buy green, ethically labelled products and the market will shift to a sustainable nirvana doesn’t work. Not least, because most of us lack the time to learn about all the different product impacts and alternatives.
That’s not to say we don’t care. Most people want to be sure their shopping doesn’t harm other families or fragile environments, but quite rightly look to governments and companies to take a lead.
We don’t design the products in our trolleys – the companies that made them do. We don’t understand the complexities of supply chains, nor should we be expected to. That’s the job of the companies themselves, enabled, assisted and where necessary required by governments to do so.
We want to get to a situation where we can be confident that the products we use have been made without hurting the people or the environment.
How company transparency can make a difference
That’s where transparency comes in. Genuine transparency doesn't just allow the public, investors and insurers to apply pressure for positive change. It also helps companies identify the knowledge gaps, risks and inefficiencies in their supply chains and make their products better for all of us.
That's why Friends of the Earth is supporting calls for Europe-wide legislation requiring large companies to report their social and environmental impacts alongside financial accounts.
This is the kind of systemic change that can help ensure the problems of places like Bangka are addressed everywhere, not just dealt with in one place only to pop up elsewhere.
But we also need wholesale change in how companies design their products. We’ll be working with designers, leading companies and others to show that we can rework the stories of stuff, redesign products, and get on track to a world in which we can enjoy our favourite items – and love the way they’re made.
Subscribe to this blog by email using Google's subscription service