The Electronics Supply Chain Can Thrive in the Circular Economy

One of my happiest moments on the job since joining TFI’s services with those of Antea Group, a Circular Economy 100 member, was upon hearing that Antea Group fast-tracked my enrollment in a Circular Economy Executive Education Course. Being a long-time proponent of designing electronic products to consume minimal materials — therefore reducing costs and environmental harm–I am eager to bring insights and recommendations to the electronics supply chain about thriving in the Circular Economy.

 As much as I wish every EBN reader could have the same training, that's clearly not realistic. Instead, I'm looking forward to having you attend virtually by sharing some of the insights applicable to electronics supply-chain executives that I glean during the six-week course, which started last week. You can come along with me to consider what you and your team can do differently starting today to successfully meet some of the “rules of engagement” in the Circular Economy.

 The following quotes are all from the course's first lecturer, Ken Webster. As a quick aside: In August, Marty Neese, formerly executive vice president, operations at Flex and current COO at SunPower, gave me a copy of Webster's book The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows; I devoured the book and since have recommended it to numerous clients and colleagues. It's a great resource if you want a deeper drive into this topic.

Based on each of Webster's thoughts, I offer you my own insights for electronics-industry supply-chain executives.

“Move away from selling products!”

If you work for a company that makes durable products, then instead of selling the product, you can maximize revenues by renting it, maintaining it, upgrading it, reselling it multiple times, and then comprehensively mining it for useable parts and materials. Financial executives must approve long-time generation of revenue that exceeds that from a one-time buy, and product executives must require that all materials, components, assemblies, and finished products are designed for efficient maintenance and reuse.

“Deliver what customers think is 'a better way to get what I need.'”

When companies offer customers better-designed, service-based systems, deploying the “borrow-use-return” model instead of “take-use-waste,” customers will perceive the offer to be a better way of getting what they need. Customer don't need to think, “I want to do this because it's better for the planet;” instead, the reduced use of resources is a byproduct of a well-designed service / system.

The tech industry has long tended to offer the latest technology, trusting that customers will recognize its advantages and buy it. Participating in the Circular Economy guides tech executives to offer their latest technologies in ways in which both first and subsequent customers can find competitive value. That's a good thing for the whole industry! 

“Offer more capability with existing assets. Design systems for growing the economy by taking use of more and more resources out of the mix.”

Examples of industries leveraging existing assets to meet many more customers' demands include transportation (Zipcar, Maersk), lighting (Philips), equipment (Caterpillar), apparel (Mud Jeans' Lease A Jeans), and furnishings (Ikea’s Second-Hand Campaign). The tech industry has ample opportunities to offer leveraged-asset solutions to numerous customers at lower costs compared to selling physical products to single customers. Webster points out that “Growth is traditionally described as output, not solutions.” It's time for electronics industry executives to figure out to how to “offer more capability with existing assets” faster, more completely, and more profitably than do competitors.

“The Circular Economy adds money flows, markets, and the business case to cradle-to-cradle.”

This was Ken Webster's response to a question about how the Circular Economy differs from cradle-to-cradle. In my experience, electronics-supply-chain executives' decisions are propelled forward more to gain business advantages than by “design for environment” as its own reward. 

“Everything is 'food' in the Circular Economy.”

Think of the entire electronics supply chain as non-toxic “food.” How will this precious metal, molded plastic, bio-based material, subassembly, and packaging be used to “feed” another product, process, or material? Of course, this necessitates the industry's full transparency about what's in our materials, components, products, and packaging — which is the current trend anyway for both regulatory and customer reasons.

“Regulations should allow everyone to be better off.”

Did you know that Circular Economy legislation is brewing in the European Union? Webster explains that people can spend their money on productive products and services, which also conserve resources and energy. TFI and Antea Group not only help clients meet product-and-facility regulations efficiently and responsibly, but we also participate in regulators' and standard-makers meetings to help make environmental and social-responsibility requirements effective for the tech industry and its suppliers and customers. Entering the Circular Economy is a key opportunity for us to drive resource efficiencies through practices that allow customers to be better off.

“Enjoy yourselves; it's an adventure.”

I'm thoroughly enjoying the course so far.

And you? In addition to reading this blog post series that shepherds electronics supply-chain executives on the Circular Economy journey, you or an EMEA-based colleague can apply to experience Circular Economy tech solutions in-person by attending an invitation-only event: At the EHSxTech Workshop April 14th, at Adobe's Maidenhead (London-area) facility, worldwide director for HP's Environmental Operations Dr. Kirstie McIntyre and I will present “Circular Economy – Concepts, Regulatory Trends, and Business Advantages.” Contact me by March 15th to be considered as a guest to this private event; confirmed guests include environment, health, safety, and sustainability executives at some of the world's largest tech companies.

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