I’d like to suggest a thought experiment on business ethics. Let’s say you’re the CEO of a company and one of your employees walks into your office and says, “Boss, we have an opportunity to improve our operations and drop a little extra cash to the bottom line.”
Your eager employee explains: “Every year, we have so much old computer equipment to get rid of. Our vendors take some of it. Some of our divisions donate their old PCs. We could consolidate all of that, get more efficient and make some money on the back end. I just need to add a little head count to make it all happen.
Sounds reasonable; you ask for details.
“I’ve already found some warehouse space. We’ll need a couple of employees to do the manual labor. A couple of 10-year-olds will do. I’d suggest some of our older guys, but they’re expensive and tend to complain, and the work can get a little messy. They’ll be burning the plastic off parts to get the metals we’re really after. Good stuff — gold, copper, platinum. Then we’ll sell it on the open market to the highest bidder. No way we lose money. I just need your approval and we’re ready to go!”
This is 2014, not 1914, so you kick him out of your office and make a mental note to keep a closer eye on his department.
OK, it’s not really a thought experiment. This scenario unfolds every day, only the kids doing the work for you are in places like Agbogbloshie in Ghana, where getting poisoned is preferred over going hungry. Your old equipment ends up in their hands because, all too often, the company that “recycles” it keeps the good stuff and sells the rest to the highest bidder, who then moves it overseas to maximize profit.
The sad truth is that billions of pounds of old and broken corporate assets — things like computers, monitors, phones — are exported every year, wreaking tremendous damage on humans and the environment, while potentially exposing sensitive data to theft. The people who make a living scavenging toxic dumps, slowly killing themselves in the process, aren’t corporate employees, but they may as well be. In effect, they’re your contract employees, part of a vast global supply chain that keeps IT costs down.
This year, well over 3 million tons of electronic scrap will be generated in the U.S. alone. A majority of that scrap comes from companies rather than consumers. The good news is that substantial progress has been made in recent years to make it easier for individuals to properly recycle their electronic waste. Companies like Best Buy, Dell, HP, Staples, Samsung and now Apple have made serious commitments to making sure that whatever gets collected is processed responsibly.
The same can’t always be said for e-waste generated by businesses. The problem isn’t that CEOs knowingly ship their old assets overseas to be processed by children. The problem is they don’t know. They don’t ask the right questions. They don’t even know they’re supposed to ask questions. Most CEOs assume that as long as U.S. law is followed, everything is fine. Unfortunately, it’s perfectly legal to ship electronic scrap overseas.
There is hope, however. In recent years, two excellent voluntary standards — R2 and e-Stewards — have emerged that have started to chip away at the export problem. In addition to protecting human health and the environment, as a bonus, they also have provisions to ensure the security of data in the recycling process. Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology is getting in the game by including disposal issues in its new data security guidelines.
Slowly, but surely, people are beginning to understand that there is a problem. But until leaders in the business community start to ask the right questions and insist that everything is recycled according to these standards, people will continue to process our electronic scrap in the most inhumane conditions imaginable.
Back to the question of business ethics: If you’re a CEO, now that you know, what will you do?
Leo Raudys is a sustainability adviser and adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota. He was formerly head of environmental sustainability at Best Buy and deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.