How sustainability is shaping the tech industry

Over the past years, public discourse has shifted its focus on sustainability: climate change, biodiversity loss, food security have become some of the critical issues facing the planet today. 

With this collective awareness came the realisation that many of our practices (and beliefs) have to evolve, departing from a model where the inherent value of nature and ecosystems has been for the most part ignored. In turn, tech companies are now dealing with new ideas and frameworks. However, at the heart of this transformation still lies a tension between profitability and sustainability.

We at Revive believe this tension is only a superficial one: by embracing sustainability, tech companies may very well align with their essential driving force: innovation.

Sustainability in the tech industry: some recurring issues

As populations have been pushing towards more sustainable consumption, tech companies have found some answers: Earlier last year, Microsoft announced their aim to be carbon negative by 2030 (meaning that on a daily basis, they would remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit). Even further, they’ve committed to draw down enough carbon by 2050 to account for all the company’s emissions since its founding in 1975. 

While these concrete actions are laudable and essential, they do not always consider that sustainability is wide-ranging: it is not just about the ecology, but also about social and economic structures and practices, from the smallest to the largest scale.

Sustainability in Tech: Microsoft Carbon Emissions

Tech supply chains are a prime example: as smartphone and tablet sales exceed 1 billion devices a year, the supply chain is still largely opaque. Cobalt, gold, silver, palladium, tin, all essential components for these devices, are mined in developing countries under poor or inexistent regulatory frameworks. This results in serious human rights abuses, where companies turn a blind eye and consumers are unaware.

In a similar vein, much has been said about planned obsolescence. Today, most tablets and smartphones have a life of around three years, leading to an accelerated cycle of consumption. This means tech companies purposefully engineer their products to fail, forcing consumers to buy new ones. Sometimes, these practices are sanctioned: in 2018 Apple and Samsung were fined €10m and €5m respectively for “dishonest commercial practices”. Other times, they go unnoticed.

These issues highlight the tension between perceived profitability and sustainability.

Sustainability and profitability

Oftentimes, transitioning towards sustainable practices and structures is seen as a cost. But conversely, companies are realising that not investing in sustainability may very well be a worse choice. In a 2018 report, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate estimated that sustainable action could deliver at least US$26 trillion in economic benefits through to 2030.

“In the next decade or two, the economic damage caused by climate change will likely be as bad as having a COVID-sized pandemic every ten years. And by the end of the century, it will be much worse if the world remains on its current emissions path.”                                                          
                                                                                                  — GatesNotes

But even beyond this assessment, we believe sustainability should not be seen as a ‘lesser cost’, but as an opportunity. ”Necessity is the mother of invention.” as the proverb goes. With that in mind, it can become an exciting thought for tech companies: transitioning from old models to new ones, from destructive practices to mindful ones — sustainability can be synonymous with innovation.

Sustainability as an opportunity

From developing ‘green’ products, to encouraging sustainable practices or implementing sustainable product life-cycles, there are many ways tech companies can promote sustainability. 

However, these measures often only exist when driven by ethical consumption; Ethical phone company Fairphone (easily repairable phones, madenec from fair trade minerals, in transparent supply chains) has yet to disrupt the market. A lack of awareness, or interest, perhaps, from the collective consciousness?

Sustainability in Tech

Then, the need for mindful consumer and company action becomes critical; The consequences of unsustainable practices hold an unfortunate reality: the poorest will be hit the hardest. Extreme heat and humidity, increased volatility of agricultural yields, rising flood risks, or others, could prove devastating for vulnerable populations. 

As mentioned earlier, sustainability is social and economic as much as it is about the ecology; we believe that through sustainable beliefs and practices, the tech world has the opportunity to make a lasting change, one that could be beneficial for everyone.

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