Business Essays - Electrical and Electronic Sector

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Sustainability in the Electrical and Electronic Sector.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the importance of sustainability within the sector of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

Before a detailed discussion of the topic can be made, the concept of sustainability must first be defined. Brundtland defined sustainability as:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. [1]

This definition, whilst widely used, is somewhat incomplete, since it does not directly address the importance of social, political or environmental factors within sustainable development.

In 1992, The United Nations agreed upon “The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development”. This declaration contains twenty-seven key principles, two of which are shown below:

“Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. [2]

“All States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world”.       [3]

These principles, in conjunction with the Brundtland definition, are summarised by the following statement:

“Sustainable development is a dynamic process, which enables all people to realise their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth’s life support systems”. [4]

The meaning of sustainable development as it pertains to the sector will be considered to be development which meets the criteria of the above definitions.

Sustainability and the Environment

Electronics production is the fastest growing manufacturing industry worldwide, and unfortunately is also one of the most environmentally polluting. Approximately 70% of heavy metals found in landfill sites are a result of electronic waste, and an estimated 40% of the lead found in landfill sites is a result of discarded consumer electronics, or “e-waste”. [5]

In the past, many companies have been slow to develop more environmentally friendly products due to the extra expense incurred, but increasing environmental awareness is starting to change the situation.

For example, the European Union’s “WEEE Directive” includes a ban on lead-bearing solders that will come into effect in January 2008, and also requires manufacturers to recycle their products. Thus designing environmentally friendly products is slowly becoming a necessity, at least for the European and Japanese markets (similar legislation exists in Japan to remove lead from consumer electronics).

In order to remain competitive, the sector must embrace these stricter environmental constraints, and successfully modernise the design process accordingly. This is already happening, most notably in Japan with companies such as NEC already producing lead free motherboards for laptop computers, and other big names such as Sony, Toshiba, and Fujitsu committing to removing lead from their soldering processes. [5]

Another area where sustainability has impacted engineering design is the automotive industry. Increasing worries about the growing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has lead to collaboration between engineers specialising in electrical, electronic and mechanical disciplines to produce hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). Such vehicles combine standard internal combustion engines with electrical motors and batteries. [6]

Techniques such as regenerative braking allow HEVs to recapture energy that would otherwise be lost in slowing the vehicle, and HEVs provide better fuel economy and emit less environmentally unfriendly gases than vehicles powered by internal combustion alone.

This highlights another important effect of the need for sustainable development in the sector; effective collaboration between those with different areas of expertise is essential to achieve sustainability.

Sustainability and Social Justice

Recall that in 1992 the United Nations agreed that sustainable development must “decrease the disparities in standards of living”. This means it must be ensured that the entire product cycle allows all people involved “a healthy and productive life” as stated by the United Nations.

Sadly, although many electrical and electronics companies are striving to improve the sustainability of their products by making them more ecologically sound, the concept of sustainable development for their employees sometimes seems less of a concern.   

For example, electrical and electronic components and goods sourced from countries such as China may have been produced using forced labour; over eight million people in China work in such conditions. There is also a worry that cheap components from such sources may be hampering competitive trade for other manufacturers.

On a more positive note, Japanese electronics giant Matsushita committed to remove lead from all its products by the start of 2003. Other companies that did the same thing include Samsung, Sanyo and Siemens. This is certainly a step toward ensuring the good health of all those involved with the relevant products.
If true sustainable development is to be established within the sector, then consideration must be given to the welfare of all those involved.

Sustainability and Economics

The issue of sustainable economic development affects all industries, including the electrical sector.

For sustainable development to occur within a business, it must make a profit in order that it can pay employees and satisfy shareholders; solutions must be developed that are cost effective and allow the company to grow.

Economic growth promotes sustainable development by creating jobs and bolstering economies. However, there is a danger of putting profit before environmental and social concerns.

Globalisation perhaps represents a danger to sustainable development. The danger of globalisation is that it is all too easy to use countries with weak economies to provide economic growth in richer countries, whilst doing little for local economic growth in less fortunate countries.

Another problem with globalisation is that it makes local economies unstable; it is easy for businesses to relocate their interests. This leaves a vacuum in the local economy, whilst facilitating growth of company shares. An obvious example is the car manufacturing industry in the UK, which experienced a rapid decline in recent years as manufacturers relocated factories to other countries.

Life Cycle Analysis and Sustainable Development

LCA is an important tool within the sector for accurately analysing and quantifying the environmental impacts of a product. All stages of the product life cycle are considered, from initial design, to manufacture, to the eventual disposal of the product.
This allows a detailed assessment of the environmental impact of a product to be made.

Although there are many different methods of conducting LCA, ISO has set out a number of principles for undertaking such analysis in the ISO 14000 series [7]. It is beyond the scope of this essay to consider these guidelines in full since the documents consider the subject in much detail. Nevertheless it is worth mentioning these standards, since although voluntary they provide an excellent reference for the implementation of LCA.

It is common to carry out LCA with the help of various software tools. Since LCA is often complicated and requires many different possible situations to be considered, such tools help carry out analysis more quickly and efficiently.

Certainly LCA in a valuable methodology in producing more environmentally sound products, but may require considerable time and resources to implement accurately. Thus the economic impact of LCA must also be considered when deciding how to allocate resources for this activity. 

Business Opportunities for the Entrepreneur in Moving Toward Sustainability

In the electrical sector, there are a number of business advantages which may be capitalised upon in moving towards sustainable development. Some of these advantages will now be considered.

Firstly, many modern consumers are far more environmentally aware than was the case some years ago. A product that can be marketed as environmentally sound may well attract customers.

Second, moving towards sustainability may be thought of as “future proofing” the company. Currently, much sustainable development work is at the discretion of the organisation. However, it seems likely that, in coming years, more regulations regarding such practices will be legally enforced. This is already being seen with issues such as the banning of products containing lead-free solder, as previously discussed. Thus the organisation that already has a good sustainability framework in place is better equipped to adjust to such future demands.

Third, there is the opportunity to capitalise on the knowledge of sustainability itself. Many companies may be anxious to implement such strategies, but unsure how best to do so. The need for sustainability consultants is becoming ever more common, and if the consultant also has specific knowledge of the sector then their skills will be all the more in demand.   

How can Entrepreneurs Achieve Sustainable Development Goals?

Perhaps the most important advice here is to start thinking about sustainable development immediately; to achieve sustainable development requires careful planning, and it is all too easy to be distracted by more immediate concerns.

The entrepreneur must allocate time and resources specifically for such initial planning, and decide on which strategies should be implemented. The risk associated with the implementation of these activities should be assessed, and tools such as Critical Path Analysis may be useful in determining the time required for each strategy to be successfully implemented.

As with many other activities in business, the PDCA cycle should be observed, namely “Plan, Do, Check, Act”. Initial planning should be carried out as described above; then the strategies decided upon should begin to be implemented. The entrepreneur must now regularly check that these activities are progressing correctly. Having performed such checks, the obtained data must be acted upon appropriately. The whole cycle then repeats, and this constant re-evaluation process is the key to ensuring smooth progress toward sustainable development goals.   


Sustainable development is becoming ever more important in all sectors of business and manufacture. The successful entrepreneur must embrace such development strategies in order to both excel economically, and ensure social and environmental responsibility.


[1]        Brundtland definition of sustainable development from “Our common future”, World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), Oxford University Press, pp 43, 1987.

[2]        Principle 1 of The United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992.

[3]        Principle 5 of The United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992.

[4]        NGO “Forum for the Future” definition of sustainable development.

[5]        Statistics and list of companies pioneering lead-free soldering taken from “Exporting Harm – The High Tech Trash of Asia”, BAN & Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 25 February 2002.

[6]        Information about hybrid vehicles obtained from The Hybrid Electric Vehicle Program at:

[7]        ISO is the International Organization for Standardization.