The pandemic has exposed the world’s fragility to force majeure events, and with nations trying to reset after the troubling developments of the last two years, sustainability and resource efficiency have emerged as the most discussed subjects.
We have seen the devastating effects of global warming - wildfires, extreme heat, moisture loss, air pollution, cyclones, flash floods and zoonotic diseases happening with even greater frequency of late. After the recent shutdowns, the surge in economic activity led to global energy shortages.
For corporates, sustainability presents an opportunity to lay the groundwork for emerging as future-ready enterprises by dovetailing environmental goals with their digital transformation agendas.
The institutional push for sustainability is increasing. Sustainability reporting norms from the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) now mandate an environmental, social and governance (ESG) overview.
Investments in ESG themed funds rose by 2.5X, from $275 million in FY20 to $650 million in FY21. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been emphasizing the Mission Circular Economy. He has said we must “reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, re-design and re-manufacture”. Even the budget for 2022-23 talks about a roadmap for a circular economy.
A circular economy aims to retain the value of products for the longest time through the help of superior design and repair principles. The circular consumption movement can be supported with the help of policy instruments like the Right to Repair. It will enhance resource security which is key to the success of missions like Make in India.
It will also enhance livelihood security for the informal sector. Simply put, repairing a product or extending its life cycle rather than discarding and buying a new one is both an energy-saving and an economic solution.
Many companies have been taken to task for forced obsolescence. For instance, at one time, if you were to use the latest version of the software, an Apple phone would slow down. Europe fined Apple €25 million for this.
Printers contain chips that prevent cartridges from being used after a certain threshold of use. Some products are impossible to repair without permanently damaging them.
There is a huge Right to Repair movement gaining popularity worldwide. The European Parliament in November 2021 passed a resolution mandating that certain products like TVs need to be freely repaired for up to 10 years.
France has passed a law to institute a classification index of repairs to many products. How can we talk of education for all, in times of hybrid work, without ensuring that all, especially the vulnerable groups, have access to cheap and long-lasting, repairable tablets and computers?
Moreover, a narrow perspective on e-waste deals with huge environmental blows.
According to a Central Pollution Control Board report in 2019-20, India generated 1014961.2 tonnes of e-waste for 21 types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). Such e-waste comprises hazardous substances such as lead and mercury and also valuable substances such as iron, steel, copper, aluminium and plastics.
While the good has to be saved, we cannot dump our landfills with dangerous chemicals that will sit in the groundwater and affect both land and aquatic life.
Being the third-largest producer of e-waste after China and the US, India needs to think of e-waste and the longevity of products holistically.
Doing things sustainably means ensuring our products are repaired and not discarded in a short time. With the vast penetration of the digital economy, we need to look at digital repairs in a more organized way and not dump our mobile phones or tablets after 1-2 years of use.
Therein lies a huge opportunity, and India’s vast engineering talent can change the repair narrative and make India the repair garage of the world. We can extend the life of e-products by repairing and making such products more affordable. Building our repair momentum with repairability guidelines in place, we can export repair work and also fare better on climate action.
The repair economy is worth $100 billion. In 2017, the Swedish government introduced a 50% tax break for using repair services on consumer items. It’s important to design policy frameworks that allow for the proliferation of greater sustainable ideas and indigenization. The future is now. Let’s not lose the momentum.
Ajai Chowdhry is founder, HCL and chairman of the Electronics Sector Council of India.