Google's 3TG Sourcing: A Sustainability & Ecosystem Services Review
“Unfortunately, companies often fail to make the connection between the health of ecosystems and the business bottom line.
Many companies are not fully aware of the extent of their dependence and impact on ecosystems and the possible ramifications. Likewise, environmental management systems and environmental due diligence tools are often not fully attuned to the risks and opportunities arising from the degradation and use of ecosystem services.
For instance, many tools are more suited to handle “traditional” issues of pollution and natural resource consumption. Most focus on environmental impacts, not dependence. Furthermore, they typically focus on risks, not business opportunities. As a result, companies may be caught unprepared or miss new sources of revenue associated with ecosystem change”.
The objective of this article is to begin to understand Google's relationship with natural resource extraction in the DRC by considering potential impacts, dependencies, risks, and opportunities. With a systems-thinking and Ecosystems Services Review(ESR) approach, we will project what links Google has with the environment and human populations affected by their resource demands.
We will briefly review some of Google’s broad sustainability approaches and correlation to the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) and Aichi Biodiversity Targets.
Afterward, we will review a high-level assessment of the projected dependencies and impacts on ecosystem services concerning their sourcing of tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (3TG). Consideration of how these ecosystem services impact their supply chain, human life, and the environment will be the focus. Projected trends and drivers, as well as risks and opportunities, will be explored before concluding.
High-Level Sustainability Approach & Connection to the SDGs & Aichi Biodiversity Targets
“We’re raising the bar in making smart use of Earth’s resources, expecting the highest ethical standards through our supply chain, and creating products with people and the planet in mind” , Google says.
They broadly categorize their overall approach to sustainability into two main categories: Environment and Responsible Supply Chain.
Their missions for each category are respectively:
“We’re focusing on developing services that improve the lives of as many people as possible while operating in an environmentally sustainable way” ; and
- “We want people to feel good about using our products so we’ve built a supply chain that considers not only the usefulness of what we make but also the social and environmental impact”.
Under Google's environment section, we see they are intently focused on efficiency for their data centers, committing to renewable energy, creating sustainable workplaces, and empowering individuals with technology in a way that promotes intergenerational equity.
Their data centers employ methods to be efficient with their use of water, energy, and materials, including the use of AI to optimize their operations systems input and outputs.
Google has been energy consumption has been carbon neutral for over a decade, and their acquisition and development of renewable energy sources continues to expand rapidly.
Their sustainable workplaces are constructed of ecologically beneficial landscapes, eco-friendly building and office materials, and their cafes that capitalize on using conventionally undesirable produce.
Google’s data and technology are providing environmental insights that assist in ecosystem, energy, and wildlife monitoring to inform effective action.
Responsible Supply Chain
Google states that it is committed to minimizing their environmental impact while improving the lives of their employees that create their products. It further adds that they are committed to the highest ethical standards for their supply chain and that they “promote meaningful social change at supplier sites and nearby communities”.
They have produced supplier responsibility programs and reports and renewable energy programs for supplier communities.
Google is initiating a blockchain system to assist in creating greater transparency of minerals traceability in their supply chain.
On their website, we find mentions of a Supplier Code of Conduct, Conflict Minerals Policy, Supply Chain Report, and a Modern Slavery Statement.
Connection to SDGs & Aichi Biodiversity Targets
At a glance, it is quickly apparent that Google’s overall sustainability approach is directly supporting many of the SDGs & Aichi Biodiversity Targets.
Ecosystem Services Review (ESR) Scope
The scope of this ESR will focus on Google’s relationship with its Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) suppliers of tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (3TG). The DRC is in Central Africa, with a population of about 84 million people.
Minerals that are provided by these mines contribute to the creation of many electronic devices today, including:
- electric lights
- contact points in automobiles
- vacuum tube filaments
- camera lenses
- soldering materials
- coating for steel
- bearing alloys
- glass making
- other electronic components
We will be looking at Google’s role and the general impacts of not-readily-identifiable suppliers (mining companies and individual mining operations). Our focus will be on the high-level approach and relationship Google and its DRC suppliers have with the environments affected by its suppliers in the DRC.
The role that 3TG plays in the production of electronic devices is critical and arguably one of the most expensive and controversial components.
Demand for these minerals will likely continue to increase rapidly in parallel with global consumer demand for electronic devices. We will explore the consequences of this market trend to identify opportunities that are potentially strategic, timely, and supportable, as well as possible risks.
Priority or Relevant Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem services that Google is most dependent on and most likely to provide significant risks and/or opportunities will serve as our primary focus points for our projected analysis.
Questions considered for this assessment:
Does this ecosystem service serve as an input or does it enable/enhance conditions for successful company performance?
Does this ecosystem service has cost-effective substitutes?
Does the company affect the quantity of quality of this ecosystem service? Is the company's impact positive or negative?
- Does the company's impact limit or enhance the ability of others to benefit from this ecosystem service?
Justification for Materiality
- What is the materiality of the following ecosystem services to Google?
Mine development impacts the potential for food production in the immediate area and regions downstream in the shared watershed. These impacts are due to the deforestation, vegetation clearing, topsoil removal, and excavating operations. With a growing population of 84 million people in DRC and almost 8 billion people worldwide, food scarcity is becoming a more frequent topic as demand will only accelerate in its increase. When soil health is depleted, the terrestrial surface area for optimal food production is reduced and can result in future malnutrition, sickness, disease, and increased poverty. Expenses and liabilities increase in the supply chain when labor pools' health is deteriorated.
Indigenous tribes and rural villages commonly forage in wilderness areas. Mining operations in these areas and shared watersheds depletes their food sources and can potentially result in a massive risk to company reputation.
Timber & Other Wood Fibers
Excavation of vegetated areas depletes wood and wood fiber resources, thereby depleting the availability of local building materials. Production and shipment of timber from outside the country could prove to be expensive and not a cost-effective alternative. Increased building materials costs can result in increased poverty as the price of constructing shelters and common goods become more costly due to dwindling resource supply. Political and economic volatility then becomes an adverse risk to the supply chain.
Fibers & Resins
Rubber being a long-time resource for the DRC, this resource is no longer available if it's cleared for mining operations. The depletion of rubber trees nudges the DRC to an increased risk of developing the necessity to import its rubber from elsewhere. Simultaneously, the diversification of the DRC’s natural resource bank is reduced. Economically, this puts the country and its population at financial risk, which can lead to political turmoil, thereby jeopardizing supply chains.
Many rare plant species and gems are native to the DRC. The depletion or elimination of such species and commodities could place company reputation at risk.
Mining activities typically result in sedimentation of rivers and pollution of waterways. For neighboring riverine civilizations, this can cause an incredibly detrimental effect on the population. Repercussions may include negatively affecting: suppliers’ labor pool health, ability to operate, and government regulations.
Biodiversity exists due to genetic variations. The differentiation in a gene's expression allows for various species to adapt more effectively than other species might in changing environmental conditions. Home to many unique species, the DRC’s ecological resilience to adverse conditions in a changing climate is negatively affected when rare species are reduced or eliminated. Ecosystems become more prone to collapse, and all ecosystem services become threatened as the ecological “web” of species falls apart like a Jenga model. With depleting ecosystem services, supply chain reliability begins to deteriorate.
Global Climate Regulation
Smelting of 3TGs results in the emissions of monumental amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These emissions further destroy the ozone and allow ocean temperatures to rise, exacerbating glacial melt and increased weather pattern volatility combined with flooding.
Regional/Local Climate Regulation
The DRC is already subject to “volcanic and limnic eruptions, earthquakes, flooding, and drought. Vulnerability to these hazards is exacerbated by poverty and political insecurity” – all of which are significant threats to supply chain durability. Flooding and drought can be mitigated and, in some instances, avoided altogether.
Water Purification and Waste Treatment
Waterways and wetlands are often the first victims of neighboring mining operations; these regions’ ability to purify water and treat waste is drastically reduced. Natural water purification and waste treatment capacities are reduced by sedimentation. Sedimentation is the result of reduced or eliminated vegetation and topsoil removal. When potable water sources are ruined, risks to reputation and operations are quickly realized.
Bats, birds, amphibians, and reptiles that live in vegetated areas keep insect populations in balance. Excavation pits can easily result in standing water where mosquitos populate quickly. Mosquitos can carry the zika virus, ebola, and malaria, which threaten the health of the local population. Increased disease potential creates substantial operational and reputation risks.
Similar to disease regulation, bats, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals are natural pest regulators. The destruction of the habitats of these pest regulators can create problems for various agricultural sectors and the local population. Pollination Bees often make their homes in forested areas and visit nearby fields where they pollinate crops. Destruction of these areas can negatively influence crop production, thereby reducing food and economic power for the region.
Recreation and Ecotourism
Excavation sites are typically regarded as very disagreeable “eyesores” for people enthusiastic about camping, hiking, and bird watching. It’s also critical that the safety of tourists and recreational personnel is upheld when conflict minerals are often hot items that the DRC’s unregulated armed militias tend to tax and violently harass suppliers and their communities unlawfully.
Ethical & Spiritual Values
The DRC is home to more than 200 tribes. Many of these tribes hold specific regional areas as being sacred and spiritual to their culture and people. Sensitivity to these areas must be applied to avoid reputation risks to the company and conflict.
Main Trends & Drivers
The significance of the ecosystem services mentioned above cannot be overstated. Several of these ecosystem services are even more critical than others since the consequences are tangibly realized more quickly than others.
Trends: Quality vs. Quantity
Reflecting on the ecosystem services mentioned, how is the quantity and/or quality of these items trending?
Quantity and quality are essential attributes of crop production. Food scarcity and nutrient density is a growing issue that merits serious attention, especially on a continent experiencing exceptional famine. Compromised food production can result in malnutrition, sickness, disease, and increased poverty.
Quantity of wild foods available becomes increasingly critical as supply decreases as demand increases. Deforestation and topsoil removal continue to reduce wild food availability.
Timber & Other Wood Fibers
Quantity of this resource is critical as population expansion will result in increased demand while supply is likely to be reduced due to ongoing deforestation.
Fibers & Resins
Quantity of these resources availability assures economic opportunity diversity. With growing populations, diversification of opportunity becomes even more critical for economic resiliency. Demand will increase as supply may be negatively affected by increasingly poor land use and mismanagement.
Baseline syndrome will possibly result in a reduction of demand, while decreases in supply are likely a result of deforestation. Supply and demand for ornamental natural resources regarded as sacred may shrink into the future. The successive importance of ornamental resources is dependent on the cultural practices of native tribes remaining present in the culture of future generations.
The quality of freshwater available will remain the most critical ecosystem service analyzed. Supply will likely remain constant or shrink depending on riverine land management practices; however, demand will undoubtedly increase with growing populations and growing industry.
Not immediately tangible, yet the effects of reduced genetic differences in species will be felt in the long run as ecosystems gradually collapse and species disappear. Quality of biodiversity is critical, and so is a balanced quantity of species' populations for optimal ecosystem health. Conservation efforts can assist in maintaining and restoring the biodiversity integrity of ecosystems.
Global and Local Climate Regulation
The quality of ability for an ecoregion or biome to contribute to global climate regulation positively is increasing in necessity worldwide. Biome's and ecosystem's abilities to regulate climate are supported by preservation, conservation, and restoration efforts. Fortunately, these efforts are receiving much more attention in the past ten years.
Water Purification and Waste Treatment
Easily one of the most critical ecosystem services analyzed, the quality of the ecosystem's ability to purify water and treat the region's waste will be essential to maintaining the human population and environmental health of the region. The successful function of these eco-operations can be supported through monitoring and controlling efforts as their required success will increase over time with population growth.
Disease & Pest Regulation
Quantity of birds, bats, amphibians, and other animal and insect species that regulate disease-carrying biota are vital assets for maintaining optimal health of the bioregion. The supply of these disease and pest regulating services will be directly affected by habitat available for these supporting species.
Quantity of natural pollinators available in an ecosystem will be critical to the bioregion’s health. Demand for policies to protect pollinators has drastically increased on a global scale in the past ten years.
Recreation and Ecotourism
Quantity and quality of regions open for recreation and ecotourism are imperative. People not only desire to see a beautiful location, but they want to experience multiple areas in the same region. Having only one optimal destination as an option is unappealing to many recreation fanatics and tourists. The quality and quantity of healthy vegetated areas are directly related to economic success and quality of life. Tourism is a fast-growing industry in a world with a rapidly growing global population.
What factors are supporting these trends?
Changes in Land Use and Land Cover
Waterways become sedimented and polluted by industry and poor land management practices. Deforestation leads to soil erosion and then ecosystem collapse.
Consumers buying new electronics more and more frequently out of marketing-fabricated desire— not out of necessity— creates an unnecessary exponential growth in demand for natural resource extraction for production.
Ineffective Waste Management Systems
Inability to recycle, reuse, and upcycle materials lead to unnecessary waste and increase natural resource extraction and environmental degradation.
Corruption, Policy, and Enforcement
"As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) emerges from a long period of violence and instability, it struggles with a legacy of entrenched corruption at all levels of society, threatening social and political institutions with failure. Repeated political crises, poor infrastructure, an underdeveloped regulatory environment, lack of institutional capacity and weak rule of law fuel the country’s persistent governance crisis.
Petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as a complex web of political patronage permeate all sectors of the economy, undermining development prospects and compromising the fragile post-conflict equilibrium.
Despite being endowed with considerable mineral wealth, the extraction of natural resources continues to be combined with widespread corruption, including within the armed forces, fuelling violence, insecurity and public discontent. Corruption in tax and customs administration, as well as in the management of state-run companies, undermines the state’s capacity to collect revenues and escape the trap of mismanagement, conflict and poverty."
Main Risks & Opportunities
Type: Regulatory & Legal; Market & Product
Conservation, preservation, and restoration of nature receive massive global interest, funding, and support to implement policy changes, sanctions, and environmental protections to ensure the ecological integrity of the planet and its local components due to growing climate change awareness.
Type: Market & Product; Financing; Reputational; Operational
Technology advances to new levels, which render nonrenewable resources obsolete for the production of electronic and other future products. All future products are entirely plant-based.
Type: Regulatory & Legal; Market & Product; Operational
An ecological collapse that results from multiple ecosystem components diminished or eliminated causes health and economic problems to local regions. This finally results in political turmoil and increased violence which ultimately destroys the supply chain in affected regions.
Type: Market & Product; Operational
Mines are depleted of their nonrenewable resources, and local economies have not developed any alternative business opportunities. Economic and political volatility ensues. Operations cease and the supply chain is null.
Type: Reputational; Market & Product; Financing; Operational
Increase funding and support for developing plant-based technologies that are 100% independent of nonrenewable resources.
Type: Reputational; Market & Product; Operational
Establish protected areas equivocal in size and service of biodiversity and ecosystem services for mineable areas that are to be excavated. Open these protected areas to the public for recreational use for revenue generation and use the funding to protect more areas.
Google is implementing a lot of protocols that encourage a more transparent and ethical supply chain. Their codes of conduct and policies are positive approaches that are making steps in the right direction.
My biggest critique is that Google could be more directly involved in the DRC. Developing a power program for the Congo is a great start .
There await many more opportunities for Google to make significant impacts that could protect the ecological integrity and humanity of the vast regions it is profoundly influencing.
For instance, they could support various regenerative agricultural opportunities that simultaneously provide more diverse economic opportunity, financial security, and enhanced environmental benefits. A real-life example of this would be the Doi Tung Development Project. Deforested mountains for the growing of poppy flowers to produce heroin underwent a 30-year transformation period. Rural and indigenous populations were brought power, roads, education, and agricultural practices that resulted in the reforestation of the entire region, highly profitable commercial crops, and economic profitability while pulling these communities out of poverty and drug addiction.
Another comment: in 2019, Google produced only 62 audits of its +1,000 suppliers sites globally. A company with the resources Google possesses has no excuse as to why it cannot audit all of its suppliers once every year. Frequent auditing supports greater consistency and continuity in ethics and transparency. It would also reduce the number of violations to their codes of conduct, policies, and protocols that they have in place for their suppliers.
In many ways, Google is a champion in sustainability, especially when we look at renewable energy. This company is creating the future of this world quickly and powerfully, and it will need to be held to higher and higher standards, especially in the arena of environmental and social justice.
Google is off to a great start and has much more to do— especially if they are to continue laying the course of the future of humanity on this planet.
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