Paying the true cost of technology

Consumers in China have had their view of green technology shaped by being regular witnesses to the dirty end of the PC supply chain
Written by Leader , Contributor

A survey from Greenpeace this week claims that, despite the bad press the Chinese Government gets from green and humanitarian groups, the country's citizens do actually care about more than simply aping Western progress.

If the survey's results are to be believed, and they should probably be taken with a pinch of statistical salt, then Chinese consumers are prepared to pay more for environmentally sustainable technology than their counterparts in Germany or the UK — up to $200 on the current price of a PC.

The results are slightly skewed by the fact that Greenpeace mainly surveyed urban affluent Chinese — the small percentage of the population who can actually afford to by any kind of PC — but the broad result makes sense. The environmental group explains the apparent zealousness for green tech in China as being rooted in the fact that many Chinese have seen dirty ends of the tech supply chain first hand.

Cheap Chinese labour means that tech company suppliers such as Foxconn use the country to assemble gadgets such as the iPod under questionable conditions. After circulating around Western countries for a while, technology comes back into the country in the shape of e-waste to be broken down by poorly equipped workers with little or no protective clothing or safety equipment.

Stopping the export of e-waste to the developing worlds is not easy. There are a lot of groups that want the trade to continue — not least many of the workers themselves, who see stripping PCs down for trace amounts of precious metals such as gold and silver as valuable employment in areas where there are few alternatives. Recognising and regulating the trade with investment in proper facilities from tech vendors would go a long way towards improving matters.

Better still are moves to clean up the components used in PCs and other tech. The EU Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, which limits the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, and is due to go into force in the UK on the 1 July, should go someway towards forcing the IT industry to clean up its act. However, the farce that is the WEEE directive, Europe's attempt to regulate recycling of waste IT, rolls on with no clear date on when the legislation will be enacted by a scandalously timid Department of Trade and Industry.

Legislation can speed things up, but ultimately real change will only come when consumers are prepared to put their hands in their pockets and make it worth vendors while to invest in greener tech. Greenpeace's survey, and developments such as the greenish Fujitsu Siemens Esprimo PC, could be a sign that those days aren't so far off.

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