Three simple ways European product design can help eliminate poverty abroad

5241715320_e3246875fb_bThis post is by Richard Gower, senior associate for economics and policy at Tearfund. This post first appeared on Tearfund’s policy blog.

In poor nations, millions of people already make their living from ‘circular’ trades such as repair and recycling. The way we design our products in the EU – the toxic chemicals we permit and the ease of repair that we require – has a strong influence over their livelihoods. But these impacts are not currently considered as part of the process for setting design standards.

Most of the electronic goods we dispose of eventually end up in developing countries (for computers, the figure is 90 per cent). Most of this equipment is repaired and sold on; creating jobs and allowing access to cheap IT for those who would otherwise not be able to benefit from it. In Accra, Ghana, for example, the refurb sector provides more than 30,000 jobs, and 80 per cent of devices are either secondhand, repaired or refurbished.

Toxic consequences
However, there is also a dark side to this story. Your mobile phone contains arsenic, lead and a host of other toxic materials that pose a threat to life when it is no longer (re)useable. If the phone is sent to landfill, these chemicals can leach into soil and groundwater. Under appropriate conditions, recycling is safe. But if the recycling is conducted by a child with no safety gear on a Ghanaian rubbish tip, the consequences can be brutal. Unfortunately, the latter is common. The biggest e-waste dump in the world is just outside Accra.

A recent paper, written by Green Alliance on behalf of Tearfund, examines how product design standards (and, in particular, the EU’s ecodesign legislation) could be used to enhance the livelihoods of those engaged in repair and recycling in poor nations, rather than endangering them. This perspective is entirely absent from the debate about these standards at present.

How to improve the lives of the poorest
The paper is our first investigation of this important issue, but we can already draw three conclusions:

  1. Ambitious, open design standards could improve the livelihoods of repair and remanufacturing entrepreneurs in the Global South.
  2. Restrictive standards that allow manufacturers to exert a monopoly over repair and upgrade could damage these livelihoods.
  3. Restricting the use of hazardous chemicals (like those on the list of Substances of Very High Concern) could improve the health of huge numbers of children and adults currently involved in the informal recycling of electronics.

At present, design standards such as the EU’s ecodesign measures are intended to improve the resource efficiency of products sold in Europe, which is a worthy aim. With a bit more thought, they could also be used to directly improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

[Image: All Things Mobile by Meena Kadri from Flickr Creative Commons]

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