Technology is both a blessing and a curse for sustainability

Our sustainability efforts impact the natural, economic and social environment that future generations will inherit. Whether, as individuals, we consider the future of the next generation or not, sustainability has become an essential part of our lives.

Technology has both aided us in becoming more sustainable (such as by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels) and made the situation much worse by contributing to the pollution of our planet.

What is sustainability?

Like it or not, most people’s daily lives depend on technology. From smartphones and tablets to laptops and smart TVs, we’re using devices frequently throughout the day. The environmental impact of these devices is often far greater than we imagine (especially when you consider the tendency to get a new phone every 18 months, even when the old one is perfectly fine).

The word “sustainability” was first used in this context in the 1970s when the Brundtland Commission defined it in its 1987 report “Our Common Future”. It described it as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Simply put, sustainability is about our descendants and the impact our current standard of living will have on them. It is based on three important pillars: the environment, the economic environment and the social environment, and if one pillar collapses, the entire structure suffers. Which will have an untold impact on humanity. Our planet has numerous resources on which people depend for food, building homes and comfort.

The good news is that many of these resources are renewable.

The bad news is that when resources are depleted too quickly, they will never recover. There is an index called the replacement rate that informs us about this. It is important because it indicates the overuse of a particular resource and shows whether its use is sustainable in the long term.

The impact our devices have on the environment

One question some of us ask ourselves is, what can we do to help the environment or at least make it less polluted? But to answer this question, we first need a better understanding of the environmental impact of technology.

On the one hand, technology has made it possible to reduce the amount of fossil fuels by harnessing renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydropower. It has also improved the way we use energy by reducing the amount needed to power homes and businesses. Thanks to technology, it has become easier to recycle paper, plastic, metal and glass.

On the other hand, technology has also contributed to water, land and air pollution through numerous industrial processes, transportation, and other human activities. People have destroyed habitats through deforestation, mining, overpopulation, and overconsumption. Electrical waste has multiplied beyond measure because we prefer to buy new electronics instead of repairing items we already own.
People have a tendency to take technology for granted and develop a need to have certain pieces of tech as part of their everyday lives, so we end up trivialising the impact our gadgets have on the environment.

We’re only interested in the pleasure and convenience these devices provide, and so we rarely consider where they came from and what natural resources were used to create them.

Once we run the numbers, it gets a little harder to remain indifferent. According to the EU, 160,000 laptops are discarded every day. While 70% could be recycled, less than 20% end up being reused. It takes, on average, 190,00 litres of water to manufacture one laptop, and 14,000 litres to make a smartphone.

According to an article published by the BBC in 2020, “the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet, and the systems that support them accounts for an estimated 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. This is similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally.” The figure is expected to double by 2025.

How can we become more sustainable?

When it comes to the economy, as ordinary people, we may feel powerless to make a difference, but we have more influence than we think.

By exerting pressure on governments and private companies, we can advocate for measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote a circular economy, and invest in green technology.

We can also lobby for public policies that support the development of a green economy and sustainable industry, which can create new business opportunities and jobs.

As citizens, we can act as “guardians of the environment,” protesting against policies that do not prioritize sustainability, donating to or volunteering with NGOs that promote a cleaner, greener future, and only buying products that meet European standards.

On the social side, implementing sustainable practices can help reduce poverty, improve access to education, protect human rights, and advance public health policies. For example, investing in education and training programs can help people develop their skills and secure better-paying jobs, ultimately leading to higher living standards in the long term.

Given the impact of technology on all three areas, tech companies have a moral responsibility to practice and promote sustainability policies. Of course, our individual actions also matter, and we can make small daily changes such as turning off the water when brushing our teeth, donating gadgets instead of throwing them away and sorting our waste for recycling.

Valentin Rusu is QA Community Lead at Zenitech.

Zenitech creates technology to transform businesses. It works as a strategic technology partner with clients to design, deliver and implement creative technologies that have a real impact on their business – creating new revenues, transforming customer experience and interaction, driving growth, reducing time to market and innovating for the future.


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