Standards for ICT: A Green Strategy in a Grey Sector

Standards for ICT: A Green Strategy in a Grey Sector

Tineke M. Egyedi (Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands) and Sachiko Muto (Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/jitsr.2012010103
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This paper takes the recent process towards standardizing the mobile phone charger in the EU as a starting point to consider the role that compatibility standards might play in mitigating the negative impact of ICT on the environment. Building on insights gained from the economics of standards literature, the authors explore how the inherent effects of compatibility standards – such as reducing variety, avoiding lock-in, and building critical mass – can have positive implications for the environment. While there is growing interest in how performance measurement standards initiatives with an explicit environmental purpose can contribute to sustainability, the authors argue that current standardization literature and policy have overlooked this important (side) effect of compatibility standards. Having first illustrated how excessive diversity and incompatibilities in ICT generate e-waste, discourage re-use and make recycling economically unviable, this paper develops an economic-environmental framework for analyzing the sustainability effects of compatibility standards and applies it to the case of mobile phone chargers. The authors conclude that compatibility standards are a form of ecodesign at sector level and should be recognized as a relevant complementary strategy towards greening the IT industry.
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2. The Challenge Of Sustainability–Is Ict The Solution Or Part Of The Problem?

Implicit in many recent policy reports about the contribution of ICT as an enabler for sustainability in other sectors (Climate Group, 2008; Capgemini, 2009) is the assumption that ICT itself is a clean a sector. The negative externalities1 generated by the sector are often disregarded. For example, the influential Climate Group study (2008) notes that fifteen percent of the CO2 emissions in 2020 can be saved by applying smart ICT in other sectors. However, the direct environmental and rebound effects, that is, the unintended side effects that negate the intended environmental benefits, are ignored or covered up (e.g., Climate Group, 2008, p. 50). The parallels between current promises of ICT towards making an environmental contribution and the hopes held in the 1990s entail a warning. The rebound effects of the paperless office (direct, primary environmental effect) and teleworking (indirect, secondary environmental effect) have become classic examples (Egyedi & Peet, 2003; van Lieshout & Huygen, 2010). While teleworking was hailed as a means to reduce mileage to work, studies show that it increased other transport (e.g., travel during leisure time); and while ICT was expected to reduce paper use (i.e., ‘de-materialization’), in reality - and primarily because of computers - between 1988 and 1998 it increased by a quarter (O'Meara, 2000, p. 129).

Indeed, in stark contrast with the immaterial notion conveyed by concepts such as ‘virtual’, ‘web’ and ‘the cloud’, the impact of ICTs on the environment is highly concrete. It relates to the energy and materials used in manufacturing products; the packaging and logistics of distribution; the energy and material consumption during use; and disposal at end-of-life. At each of these stages, standards can play a sustainability-enhancing role.

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