Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

CSTPR Seminar: Lucy McAllister

CSTPR Seminar: Lucy McAllister

Coming to the Rescue? Tech Firms and the Harms of the Electronics Commodity Chain

by Lucy McAllister - Environmental Studies Program and Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Colorado Boulder

Abstract: The leaders of the global electronics commodity chain, multinational electronics corporations, perpetuate widespread human and environmental harms, including the global sale of “conflict minerals” that are used to fund the violence of warlords (Spectrum 2011), the depletion of virgin minerals and precious metals, primarily, from Africa (Boone & Ganeshan 2012), and the persistence of unsafe and environmentally hazardous working conditions at electronics factories in Asia (Zhou 2013). The practices commonly used to recycle electronic waste (e-waste) in the informal sector of developing countries, where roughly 50-80% of the global hazardous e-waste stream is sent, also produce severe harms, including health risks especially for women and children (Frazzoli 2010; Leung 2008; Sepúlveda et al. 2010). Despite the important role that multinational electronics firms play in harming people and the environment, and despite the likely role they play in obscuring their participation in such harms, little coordinated or interdisciplinary research has been done on these issues. Moreover, there is no research on the role that lead electronics firms play in maintaining a positive image amongst the public. The aim of this dissertation is to directly address this gap by investigating whether the role lead firms play in producing severe human and environmental problems throughout the electronics commodity chain has gone noticed or unnoticed by external audiences, and if so, why? Indeed, despite the acute human and environmental issues rampant throughout the mining, manufacturing, and disposal of electronics, research to date shows that consumers base purchasing decisions almost solely on considerations of lifestyle, convenience, upgrades, trends, and price (Brulle and Young 2007). This project therefore seeks to elucidate the many disconnects between electronics commodity chain problems, and consumer awareness and knowledge of such harms. More specifically, I investigate whether the legitimization of electronics consumption is the result of several overlapping ideological mechanisms or tactics employed by lead electronics firms to create quiescence among its consumer base. Using impression management theory, I ask whether electronics firms use divisionary reframing tactics to shift attention away from their detrimental business practices, thereby legitimizing themselves in the eyes of the public.

Biography: Lucy McAllister completed her M.Sc. in environmental studies at CU in May 2013, and has continued within the environmental studies program to pursue a PhD. She is now a PhD Candidate, and has recently been adjunct lecturing at Babson College. Broadly, Lucy explores the business-society-environment relationship, focusing on the role of lead electronic firms in the human and environmental harms of the electronics commodity chain. In the fall of 2013, Lucy was awarded a Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences Graduate Research Fellowship. Lucy’s first public outreach article, “The Human and Environmental Effects of E-waste” was published by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in 2013, and the Health and Human Rights Journal published Lucy’s first co-authored academic article, “Women, E-waste & Technological Solutions to Climate Change” in June 2014. Together with Nnenia Campbell and Liam Downey, Lucy has a forthcoming article, “Invisible While in Plain Sight: The World Bank in the New York Times" at Sociology of Development.


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