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Going beyond the “price tag”

What does technology truly cost us?

Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Centuries ago, voyagers sailed on ships for months or years and discovered new lands and islands on our home planet Earth. Whereas today we explore far into deep space, discover planets that are beyond human travel and observe stars and planets all while being on planet Earth! In fact to put things into perspective, smartphones today have more processing power and more memory than the first Apollo manned moon mission, would you believe that all this has happened in barely half a century. That’s one giant leap for mankind, isn’t it?

Well, it has been possible because of evolution in technology associated with the very process of creating something. The world today, as they call it, is a global village. Connectivity and accessibility only keep improving and we are floating away in a wide and deep ocean called the supply chain. While we are awestruck at how things have changed, we need to also look at the problems it has resulted in. Which is an important aspect in a holistic evolutionary process. Prices we have incurred or are mostly yet to pay, surface up only when we begin to stabilize or start seeing the effects in small amounts. Nevertheless, this is also the process of learning and rectifying! So, let’s dive a little deeper into smartphones today and understand the current processes that we are unaware of and see what we can collectively improve upon!

Let's look at how we value things

Pretty sure, the toolkit must have triggered you to think about our humble looking smartphone differently. It has voyaged all continents (except the Antarctic and Arctic obviously), has minerals and ores from so many different countries, has parts from places stationed across the globe, has human efforts of several labourers who mined, several workers who assembled the different parts, all the design engineers, R&D engineers, testers, retailers, and the whole force who work behind the scenes to finally give us the finished product. (Phew, that was a mouthful right?!). Though we don't want you to rip apart your smartphone, we would love it if you did that mentally and see how it is a cumulation of several smaller parts and human efforts coming together and not just see it as one finished product.

Often, the way we evaluate a product’s worth is based on how many human hours were spent? Human efforts and currency are all that is evaluated. For example, the cost breakdown of a typical smartphone is given below. Of course, this is a rough number and can vary depending on several factors such as the model, location, and perhaps costs that we don’t know too. But let’s look at the general breakdown of a smartphone’s price tag:

We are looking at a cumulative general idea at first and then delve into what is missing from the overall narrative!

As you can see from the pie chart, manufacturing takes up the largest chunk of the price tag breakdown. It includes the cost of the components, assembly, and testing. The various components of the phone are fabricated in different countries, say the circuit boards, processors, camera modules, display screens, batteries, sensors and more. Then they are assembled into a phone’s chassis, like completing a jigsaw puzzle by placing the components correctly and connecting the dots with cables and connectors.

While we read this very article now, there is ongoing research and development, upcoming designs, lots of software and hardware development, testing them and future features in work, in the background! Overall, the cost breakdown can vary, say in ±10-20% buffer, but manufacturing typically accounts for the largest portion of the cost.

Here is a question for you now. Do you think all these studies have missed something in the price tag? Take a few minutes to think and note them down.

What the price tag does not tell us

Have you noticed, you connect in a certain way to a certain brand name, and each one brings a different feeling or emotion. This is because of the way it is promoted and marketed. The branding, promoting, and advertising of a product takes up some cost as well! But often behind these “Feel Good” images of a brand lies several issues of ethicality.

While at the company locations (say the silicon valley offices which we dream about working in), there might be better standards of working, but at the very source of the start of manufacturing is not really human. At mining sites for example, labourers are often subject to working very long hours and in dangerous conditions as well. We know of minerals such as tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, which are termed conflict minerals, come from conflict-affected areas, where there is a lot of ganging up and monopoly of mafia groups that control lives of several underprivileged workers. The chain becomes inevitable for the workers as they are caught up in a vicious circle and finding a way out is not so easy. There are several reports on physical abuses, human rights violations and what not! This is not just the state of mining and metal extraction, but the third world countries where a lot of assembly takes place, ethical working standards take a huge hit!

If you are triggered with questions, do follow them up, research and do share the findings with your friends! While this is just one example of the human aspect which at least gets covered by the media, there is a biodiversity aspect which nobody really talks about.

Mining, mining, everywhere

At mining sites, when resources are to be extracted, there is heavy machinery used to dig up the earth, pump in water and blow up the sites to dig deeper and deeper until every inch of resource is extracted. This results in a lot of air pollution and toxicity around! Once a mining site is of no “use" to the human needs, it is abandoned and focus shifts to a new mining site. While all this happens, it also results in soil erosion, landslides and sinkholes that become fatal for the workers as well. But often there is a lot of vegetation and forest lands that need to be cleared to begin mining. Which means loss of habitat for several flora and fauna. There are indigenous communities who are intricately woven in this fabric of forest life. But they are displaced, and their emotions shaken too. They play a huge role in ensuring a balance of the ecosystem, in ways we cannot perceive being in cities forever.

Abandoning of mining sites, leaves heavy chemical leaching water. These also seep into water bodies around, could be lakes and rivers alike. This chain then spreads out to every organism which is dependent on the water body. Often it also reaches the taps of our home and drains into oceans as well (fishes and sea food we depend upon are also part of this). Aquatic animals, terrestrial animals on ground are affected as the food chain is disrupted. Think about the birds and trees that grow around. Smallest of microorganisms, insects which are not immediately in our idea of nature, but have a huge role in the ecosystem web of life, are deeply disturbed too. The problem with this web of life is, every strand is interdependent, tracing out the effects becomes as complex as the web itself. But you understand where this is going right? (for detailed info: a wikipedia page on mining and its harmful effect)

Would you have ever connected such disruptions to a smartphone? No, because we don't have the transparency of the supply chains and how anything is made. If you are looking at your smartphone and wondering about its journey now, you might think about only what is necessary for one phone. But remember, we never make one single phone at one time. We mass produce almost everything. In fact we have more SIM card connections than the world’s population, the number of phones are more than 50% of the population numbers (Of course this is not equally distributed either).

While it might feel heavy emotionally to think of all the issues mentioned above, remember we have hardly scratched the surface. We haven’t mentioned the metal extraction process which involves a lot heat and chemicals for purifying and extracting metals, the factories where production takes place, create a tonne of garbage on the sideline, in terms of material wastes, chemical wastes, resulting in soil, water and air pollution and of course affecting biodiversity of the areas around the factories. At the end of the manufacturing process, when we unbox our smartphone, there are packaging wastes which also get produced with a lot of wastes involved. When we are done using it, we don’t even have to say about the e-wastes right? All these also affect human health especially those who get in touch or contact with the e-wastes.

Taking the deeper factors into account

Now, Take a minute to reflect if our price tags account for all of the above mentioned issues. Do we really pay the price of a product? It is definitely a big fat “No”. We hardly account for the environmental and societal damages that any given product brings. Even if we had to account the damages, how do we calculate such intricately woven environmental damages? Carbon offsets, plastic neutrality and carbon neutrality can only help doing a new “good” deed. It cannot undo the damages that the product has already made.

In a nutshell, everything we see around has one form of harm or the other. But that makes life difficult. However, it is this very understanding that can help us live in a way that brings peace in what we do and have less impacts on our support systems-ecosystems.

We do not have control over how things are manufactured yet, nor do we have control over global supply chains for that matter, yet. But if you are a student, remember as you grow you might be a designer, engineer, a manager, or work in any role. The understanding of such impacts will help you create a world of choice. If you are already in a lead role, your choices make a huge difference as it propagates to thousands more! We cannot wait until new policies and new efficient methods are implemented, the climate urgency and biodiversity loss is at peak.

It is not the end of the world you see, rather there is a whole new emerging economy today. We have new companies that care about the ethicality of working standards, sustainably sourcing resources, and designing products that are long lasting and empower them to use the product for as long as possible. We wish to leave you at this point to ponder more, dig deeper and ask questions about what is happening. This very series is an attempt to help in a way that we make low impact choices. Nothing ever is impact-less, lowering our impact is the best we can do. So stay tuned for more!

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