Adopting more sustainable business models and manufacturing processes is a widely held objective within the tech industry.
Discussions surrounding sustainable technology development are becoming ever more common considering stricter environmental policies and growing consumer consciousness. Terms like ‘conservation’, ‘recyclability’, and ‘circular economy’, among others, are increasingly advertised by tech companies as well as the publication of dedicated annual sustainability reports.
Nevertheless, noble intentions are often circumvented by the continuous push to design and manufacture increasingly complex electronics at a global scale. Toxic waste, colossal water consumption, and the depletion of precious metals are all unfortunate consequences of the increasing smartification of our homes, offices, and retailers.
Sustainable tech and economic opportunities
Engaging with environmentalism and sustainability is often perceived as an encumbrance strewn with red tape. In reality, companies that embrace a sustainable future are well-positioned to reap the long-term benefits. For example, enacting carbon-neutral objectives or implementing material recovery and recycling schemes can deliver both environmental and economic benefits.
As energy prices rise globally and mounting geopolitical tensions pose threats to supply chain security, reducing costs associated with energy consumption and employing a circular recycle and reuse business model are increasingly relevant aims. In fact, the EU commission reported that up to 40 % of expenditure by EU manufacturers goes towards sourcing materials. Implementing a circular model is likely to improve profits for such firms while ensuring greater immunity against supply chain volatility.
Furthermore, copious investment is being driven toward sustainable financing to support ESG (environmental, social, governance) commitments. These investments are being delivered by both private and government financing; however, accessing these valuable funds is becoming more and more challenging as financial institutions crack down on deceptive ‘greenwashing’. On the other hand, demonstrating tangible changes enables access to new investment opportunities that keep the wheel of innovation turning.
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Are tech companies doing enough?
One of the highlights of the COP27 meeting in Cairo was the unveiling of the Semiconductor Climate Consortium (SCC). The SCC was founded in November 2022 and comprises 65 founding members, among whom are some of the biggest chip manufacturers including the likes of TSMC, Samsung, Micron, and Intel. The purpose of the SCC is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the semiconductor industry with the collective pledge to reach net zero by 2050. So how are members of the SCC planning to achieve this?
One method is increasing the usage of renewable energy sources. Many companies have made impressive strides in reducing their dependency on fossil fuels. Samsung, for example, has achieved 100% renewable energy sources for all of its sites in the US and China. Other companies are following suit with the likes of Intel achieving 80% renewable electricity across all its global sites.
Who dares wins
A more daring approach involves the overhaul of conventional manufacturing. In 2021, Microsoft launched Project Zerix with the mission of developing biodegradable and recyclable components for net-zero electronics. In collaboration with the University of Washington, Project Zerix produced a biodegradable computer mouse with a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a traditional mouse.
Also in 2021, Dell (not part of the SCC) demonstrated the Concept Luna laptop, which featured a bio-based printed circuit board made out of flax fibers, as opposed to the conventional and environmentally unfriendly FR4 epoxy resin. The laptop is also modular, thus allowing individual parts to be repaired and replaced. With traditional laptops, the inability to repair a specific component means that often the entire device is discarded. Modular design is rare in electronics but is expected to have a positive effect on reducing the overwhelming amount of electronic waste produced every year.
While these demonstration projects are promising, it remains to be seen if such eco-friendly designs will be implemented in commercial products. Many consumers demand greater environmental responsibility from the brands they buy from; however, few consumers are willing to sacrifice performance. Ensuring that alternative sustainable technology meets or even surpasses traditional choices requires extensive testing and research. It may be another few years until eco-friendly electronics become the norm.