IT industry urged to rethink concept of 'green'

Our high-tech world has a hidden cost, the Green Economics Institute warned

by Michael Smith

Making IT and technology more green is about more than just switching your monitor off at night – it is also about all the environmental, social and ethical issues surrounding production of the equipment.

That was the message from Miriam Kennet, director of the Green Economics Institute, as she addressed the Green IT Expo that was held from 4th – 5th of November 2008 at the Barbican in London.

"Being 'green' is about providing social and environmental justice at the same time" she said. "It is up to the user and the buyer to make sure that what they are doing is not causing harm."

Mobile phones are one example of a widely-used piece of technology which is linked to the exploitation and suffering of people in developing countries, she told delegates.

Mobiles use coltan, an ore produced from the mineral tantalum, which is mainly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to the United Nations, smuggling and exportation of coltan has helped fuel the war in the Congo, a crisis that has resulted in millions of deaths since 1998.

The mineral is often mined by prisoners in exchange for early release or by child labour, Ms Kennet said.

"We are all complicit in this – everyone who has a mobile phone," she said. "If we want to live in this high-tech world we have to think about these supply chains.

"It's up to us in the high-tech world to see if we can engineer our supply chains to make them more green."

But this does not mean that companies and individuals should ignore the more obvious ways to help the environment, by reducing their energy use and CO2 emissions, Ms Kennet added.

"It's going to be one of the big stories, I think, as IT develops," she said.

A report produced last year by UK charity Global Action Plan revealed that the ICT sector has a carbon footprint similar to that of the aviation industry.

The ethical impacts are, however, rarely looked at, and the same thing is true not just for the manufacture of the products but also and especially as regards to the WEE Recycling of computers and such like. Where do they end up so often? In countries of the Third World where they are dismantled under appalling conditions with no protection for the workers and the environment.

And when it comes to the recycling of such devices, whether mobile phones, PCs, laptops, servers, etc. the fact remains that it is done, predominately in Third World countries without protection and concern for the workers or the environment. The carbon footprint, or as I prefer it, the environmental footprint, is thus huge, and the ethical implications are bigger still.

Green IT must also include ethical IT, as all other green aspects have to do as well. Often industry especially tends to forget the ethics of things while still claiming that this or that is “green”.

© M Smith (Veshengro), November 2008