JEFFREY SACHS, a leading voice on sustainability, must be a sad man now. He must be sad to observe the global drift, the reckless abandon with which modern technology is wrecking the environment in what appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the terrific rates of new product discoveries, product launches and the exponential increase in the frequency with which more and more products are churned out, either as low-tech, middle-tech or hi-tech, Sachs should obviously be living in a constant state of worry. This is more so as the global environment is being contaminated on the one hand while corporate profits, arising from the process leading to the contamination, are soaring.
Realising the tonnes of municipal wastes that the increasingly urbanised world is daily generating, Sachs’ worry would be clearly and well understood. But for the corporate community, the driving force, which is profitability, is the very reason why sustainability will only be an afterthought, particularly when they are arm-twisted, blackmailed or forced to acknowledge the untoward consequences of their actions and take some remedial measures. Some of the high-sounding, novel and trendy ideas in the boardrooms are responsible, in part, for much of the mysteries that the world is now forced to adjust to, and to live with at great costs to health, well-being and longevity.
Welcome to the age of mass production and mass consumption! And welcome to the age when issues are muddled up, facts are tangled and reasoning is at odds with reality, an age marked by profoundly counterproductive logics. This is an age of extremes in which believers in the unbounded productive capacity of our economic system sit on one end of the spectrum and apply same thinking to another end of the spectrum on material capital of finite supply. Their reasoning is based on a false concept of abundance in the limited material world, creating a system based on infinite growth, within the confines of finite resources. Sounds counterintuitive too, right? But it appears right in the meantime. And, why not, when the media world celebrates its landmark success, the bourses are upbeat with volatile performances and the business community rewards them with accolades.
The abundance theory that informs mass production is presumably the industrial-era myth of progress in which economies are operating in a context of abundance. This is the theory that emboldens the proponents of mass production and this is where economic progress clearly puts nature at risk when the progress becomes reckless. The position canvassed here is in no way aimed at advocating for a halt to the world’s progress towards prosperity. Rather, it is a call for caution, circumspection and discretion. According to Soenke Zehle, “some resources, such as timber, are rival (scarce, in this case) generationally, since within a generation there is only a limited supply, but can be non-rival in the long-term if exploited at levels of sustainable yield, that is if only income and not capital is consumed.” Here, therefore, all classical economics are on trial.
Some decades ago, in the mass production sphere, emerged the concept of “planned obsolescence,” a deliberately implemented strategy that ensures the current version of a given product will become out-of-date or useless within a known time period. This guarantees that consumers will want replacements in the future, thus naturally supporting demand. The approach has worked well in favour of manufacturers for many years, but the table is beginning to turn around and consumers – for good reasons – are beginning to fight back. Some opinion leaders have described planned obsolescence as ‘obscene.’ Some have roundly condemned it for its negative social, human and environmental impacts. Under planned obsolescence, once we own a new device, we often can’t replace its components or take it to an independent repair shop for a simple fix.
There is compelling evidence that the negative impacts of planned obsolescence are significant. And electronics manufacturers are criticised for purposefully – and legally – shortening the lifespan of products and encouraging consumers to buy more. Azi Akpan, science and policy analyst, was of the opinion that planned obsolescence contributes to a culture of wastefulness by perpetuating a “buy new and buy often” mentality and limiting consumer autonomy to keep products longer by hard-wiring a “self-destruct” button in products. Considering the reality of a world with finite resources for creating these products and storing the resulting waste, she attempted to put planned obsolescence in the context of environmental law and social responsibility. According to her, “the negative social impacts of creating these products are staggering.” She wrote that many of these electronic products require highly specific metals and materials, which are commonly acquired by mining, an inherently environmentally destructive process.
Additionally, she pointed out that “the extraction of these materials brings numerous social inequity repercussions. Several materials used in electronic products are considered ‘conflict minerals,’ or minerals purchased from conflict-zones that contribute to funding civil war and perpetuating human rights abuses. Sixty per cent of the world’s cobalt (a conflict mineral used in lithium batteries) is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In this country, cobalt mining is likely to compromise workers’ health and safety and involve child labour or other human rights abuses.” Other commentators are also of the opinion that consumers aren’t the only losers here, the environment is too.
The serious problem of electronic waste as a result of planned obsolescence was put in perspective by the UN, which affirmed that “we generate 50 million tonnes of this waste each year” and “a high percentage ends up in waste dumps in developing countries.” Upgrading to the latest computer or cell phone model has become a habit for us and it’s one that is actively encouraged by the companies manufacturing our devices. Common strategies and reasons that consumers replace their smartphones include fragile screens, degrading battery life, reducing performance and software updates, as well as a lack of replacement parts. And warranty? No longer as important for a product that would soon become useless, anyway.
But consumers seem to be out with a vengeance. Planned obsolescence must stop to pave way for sustainable smartphones. “In response to growing concerns over the design of smartphones and their short lifetime – of just 2 years – a group of NGOs across Europe have launched a campaign to demand for more sustainable tech.,” noted a report. “Smartphone sales have been increasing, with over 7 billion being produced since 2007 according to Greenpeace. This growing demand is putting pressure on finite raw materials used in smartphones – the supply of precious minerals such as magnesium, cobalt and tungsten is already critical.”
Agbogbloshie, a suburb of the city of Accra in Ghana, illustrates this problem as an electronic-junk dump for all that waste coming from Europe and North America, and is considered the largest in the world. Until recently, China or India was receiving 70 per cent of this technological waste, but the West has moved the dump to Africa –mainly Ghana and Nigeria. Exporting electronic waste is illegal in the European Union, but the US Environmental Protection Agency describes it as legitimate. It is surmised that, the used hardware, rather than “bridging the digital divide,” is most often useless. It is transported in containers labelled as “second-hand merchandise,” as exporting reusable products is certainly permitted by the EU regulations.
But this type of waste ends up in countries lacking in regulations on waste recycling or management, as is the case of this Ghana, with threats to children and adults who handle the gadgets with their hands. As Africa struggles to industrialise and become a host continent to modern tech industries, the tenets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) would be helpful in no small measure in guiding their operations. Environmentally-sustainable production methods that are also beneficial to consumers are the way to go. Only recently, the “right to repair” campaigners began aggressive campaign for products that last longer.
Their voices will soon reverberate in Europe and the United States. It was even said that the European Union environment ministers might soon propose new laws that would keep offenders in check.
It may be too early to start clapping for the turnaround in tech companies’ operations to ways that favour consumers and the environment. But what is clear is that they must heed the call of the majority who fear that the universe might be under irreversible danger posed by unbridled innovation that puts the entire world in jeopardy and contributes more to climate change. African entrepreneurs and industrialists must therefore consider the risk-benefit analysis of their ventures vis-à-vis the sustainability of the continent. Although manufacturing has become a major driver of the world economy, environmental laws in Africa have been strengthened as well as their enforcement ensured. African industrialists and consumers can therefore benefit from the positive march towards industrialisation without necessarily putting the continent at risk.