5 sustainability issues the tech industry needs to take seriously

March 10, 2022
Article

Technology and sustainability should go hand-in-hand, but it’s complicated.

The growing number of tech companies that offer solutions to help combat climate change is staggering. Technology helps create and distribute renewable energy, educates people about adopting sustainable lifestyles and reducing their environmental impact, helps measure emissions, and can even help save endangered species. The large-scale behavioral changes that new technologies deliver using robotics, the internet of things (IoT), automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) offer hope for ecological change at scale.

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While the tech ecosystem is a powerful force that drives progress, its effects on the environment can’t be ignored. For example, the mined components that go into smartphones (not to mention their seemingly planned obsolescence after 18 months) and the amount of energy and carbon emissions associated with the cloud computing services and apps we all now rely on.   

Case-in-point: An MIT report shows that training an AI model can have the equivalent of up to five times the lifetime emissions of a gas-powered car. With the mainstream entrance of AI technologies, blockchain, and other innovations spurred by 5G, the number of tech-associated emissions is poised to increase. 

While big tech has started to think about a more sustainable future by taking responsibility for its carbon footprint and drain on natural resources, let’s shed more light on five big issues that will continue to plague the industry if left unchecked.  

1. E-waste  

The Global E-waste Monitor reported that the world dumped over 53 million tons of e-waste in 2019—just 17% of that was recycled. While recycling is an ideal solution to e-waste problems, recollection and recycling rates are alarmingly low, even in countries with the best e-waste management systems. China recorded the highest figure, 10.1 million tons, while the U.S. followed with 6.9 million tons, and India ranked third with 3.2 million tons. The three economies created close to 40% of global e-waste in 2019.  

Given the shortfall between the amount of e-waste that’s generated and the amount recycled, businesses have to rethink their supposedly life-changing products and manage how they create and handle e-waste, especially if they plan to meet their net-zero targets.  

What you can do about it

Offer end-of-life solutions. When a product reaches the point where it’s no longer functional, it requires a responsible end-of-life solution. That means offering a take-back program or programs to recycle or refurbish items. Be sure to consider the user experience—direct consumers to dispose of products appropriately and make the process straightforward.  

Recycle e-waste. While typical waste haulers don’t handle e-waste on a day-to-day basis, check with your hauler about special pick-ups or local e-waste recycling days. And if your office equipment is no longer useful, research local organizations that accept donations. They could help breathe a second life into your electronics.

2. Energy consumption  

Thousands of data centers worldwide support big and little tech alike. They allow our digital lives to play out seamlessly. But all these modern conveniences pose an environmental threat. An enormous amount of energy is needed—around 1% of global energy—to support internet infrastructure and day-to-day operations. By 2040, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector will likely account for 14% of global carbon emissions. Much of that energy is wasted in the form of the heat emitted by hardware components, which necessitate cooling systems that pull additional electricity.  

What you can do about it

Aim to run cloud operations in regions where more significant portions of electricity are generated from renewables and not fossil fuels. For example, Google Cloud details the carbon intensity and carbon-free energy percentage by region. If you use Microsoft Azure cloud services, you can track the carbon intensity of your operations with their Sustainability Calculator. Other cloud providers should provide annual reporting around energy usage and the percentage of energy that comes from renewables. Alternatively, use Cloud Carbon Footprint to measure and analyze cloud carbon emissions across Google, AWS, and Azure cloud web services.  

PRO TIP: When researching options for more sustainable servers and energy-efficient data centers, keep an eye out for power usage effectiveness (PUE). It’s the measure of how much energy servers in a data center actually use versus how much energy goes toward other activities, like cooling. The closer to 1 a data center’s PUE is, the more energy-efficient. 

3. Employee rights 

The world enjoys tech’s benefits with little concern about the processes and people involved. However, some tech companies’ working conditions—and, importantly, the working conditions of their suppliers—are far from sustainable. For instance, the hiring policies and working conditions at Catcher Technology, a Chinese firm that makes components for Apple products, have come under fire.  

The 2013 International Labor Organization (ILO) on environmental sustainability and decent work has set the tone for what’s acceptable. The ILO emphasizes that environmental sustainability goals are not achievable without the active participation of workers.  

What you can do about it

Systematically survey your suppliers about their sustainability practices. You’ll want to ensure they don’t abuse human rights and abide by fair labor practices. Create a supplier code of conduct (CoC) that details the expectations of your supply chain and ensures your suppliers align with your policies, values, and regulatory requirements. Supplier CoCs generally cover labor conditions, human rights, environmental stewardship, business ethics, and responsible purchasing practices. In the long run, a CoC will help you better communicate with suppliers and, if properly implemented, foster resilience and loyal partnerships. 

4. Materials  

Tech hardware—ranging from computers and monitors to phones, wearables, and IoT devices—requires various materials like plastic, precious metals, and silicon to manufacture. During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen environmental changes and resource scarcity create severe material shortages. As these concerns grow, countries and governments may need to take control of crucial resources to prevent future geopolitical feuds. Some regions like North Africa and the Middle East have already been hard-hit by resource scarcity and material conflicts.  

What you can do about it

While you may be at the mercy of conflicts outside your control, you can plan for the future. Conducting a supply chain assessment will help you understand the critical points in your supply chain and business model and where you could create contingency plans.

Additionally, implementing a recycling or buy-back program for your company’s products could help you re-use some precious components, avoid sending waste to the landfill, and save money.  

5. Carbon accounting and disclosure  

European governments have started to implement policies geared toward environmental sustainability—the EU taxonomy and Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) require financial service providers to disclose ESG considerations publicly. And we’ve started to see incentives to encourage eco-friendly behaviors and regulations and fines for non-compliant businesses. The U.S. is starting to catch up, too—the SEC is expected to mandate climate disclosures for listed companies later in 2022.  

All this is to say; the tech industry could soon be hard-hit by taxation and fines for carbon footprints and unsustainable energy consumption. An economy-shaking example on a grand scale: China imposed a total ban on Bitcoin and Bitcoin mining, partially over concerns around high electricity consumption tied to the cryptocurrency.  

What you can do about it

Start building your company‘s sustainability practice now, so you don’t have to scramble when regulation hits. Develop a thoughtful strategy, educate stakeholders, build holistic programsstart tracking data to share your progress, and report against universal standards like GRI.   

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The takeaway

• Only just 17% of e-waste gets recycled.

• By 2040, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector could account for 14% of global emissions.