One digital device can help us do different things at the same time, at a speed that we never would have imagined. With a single click we can set several services in motion that make our lives easier. The speed of technological advancements seems unstoppable.
Behind the seemingly virtual world that digital technologies create lies a vast physical network that is incessantly consuming human and natural resources. Our digital life has a direct consequence on our analogue life. But we barely realise this because the infrastructure necessary to uphold digital services, such as clouds, seems intangible to us.
Invisible energy consumption
Once you take a close look at the life cycle of digital devices (keeping in mind their short life span), it is quite shocking what unjustifiable measures are being taken to produce devices without which – we think – we cannot live.
Let’s take smartphones as an example. Their production, in particular, leads to massive energy and resource consumption.
Human rights issues in extractive industries
First, raw materials are extracted in mines. This results in vast geological interventions to find cobalt and lithium necessary to build the batteries for smartphones, laptops and electric cars. Many mines are situated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where 50% of the world’s cobalt lies. According to extensive field research by Amnesty International, miners are not equipped with anything but flashlights and a pick. Consequently, they become very susceptible to long-term health damages and fatal accidents. In addition, proof of child labor tells the story of children working in mines for up to 12 hours a day in exchange for one or two dollars.
CO2-emissions of being connected
Secondly, raw materials are processed into finished products. As most of the processing is done in China, long-distance transport ist necessary. This, in turn, causes an alarming amount of CO2 emissions. Then, the unprecedented energy consumption continues during the actual use of digital devices. They require intense data processing and therefore energy to feed remote data centres necessary to run our interconnected devices.
Finally, once items get recycled, and if not disposed of properly, toxins can enter soil and water supplies. Burning e-waste is also a common form of recycling since it is also aiding copper extraction. Hence, further toxins are released into the air. Although the e-waste recycling industry is becoming more formalized (due to the potential to recover secondary raw materials), e-waste recycling still poses heavy hazards to human health and the environment. One of the biggest landfill of e-waste worldwide is the district Agbogbloshie in Ghana. It’s allegedly the main “digital dumping ground” for industrialized nations.
Due diligence and consumer responsibility
Taking into consideration the above-mentioned impacts and the current global climate crisis, the urgency of the situation becomes apparent. We need to raise awareness about the environmental and societal implications of the tech industry.
It is a fact that billion-dollar tech companies are failing to address human rights risks arising in their supply chain. Therefore, non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Global Witness are calling on companies who specifically use lithium-ion batteries in their products to conduct human rights due diligence and investigate to which extent the environment and humans are affected within their supply chains. There is a need for stronger control of suppliers and more transparency towards consumers.
Everyone has a role to play
But are these multinational tech-companies the only ones to blame? We think not. As consumers, we need to make the effort to inform ourselves and act responsibly. As the High-Tech SeedLab, we see our role in increasing awareness, but more importantly in finding entrepreneurs with unique visions. We want to provide them with the necessary support for informed decision-making and early due diligence.
This year, the High-Tech SeedLab is focused on supporting female founders and solutions for sustainability. Regarding the environmental impact of digital technologies, we decided to take on founders in our 2020 Batch that want to create solutions for social and environmental sustainability. We selected Dodo Laboratory for their vision to create games as a tool for transformative learning. They want to teach children about 21st-century problems and how to counter them with the right skills and methods. Zero Waste Era is another social impact startup that aims to reduce plastic waste and to teach consumers responsible, carbon neutral consumption.
Do you also have an idea to help our society be more sustainable?
Get inspired by our startups or found one yourself! We will open up applications in October for our 2021 batch. Have a look at our website to learn more about our program requirements and contact us if you have any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.