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Christoph Schell headshot

Tech Is the Solution to a Planet in Peril, but We Must Act Now

In the COVID-19 era, the tech sector can have an huge impact, from eliminating single-use plastics to transforming supply chains to innovating for good.
Planet in Peril

As COVID-19 swept across the globe, a small silver lining emerged: the realization that our planet could begin to heal. With people sheltering at home, changes to Earth’s atmosphere became so significant they were visible from space. City skylines - from New Delhi to Los Angeles to Seoul - cleared for the first time in recent history.

Nature is showing us the direct impact our daily actions have on the earth. More importantly, our clearer skies indicate that we have the power to slow, stop or even reverse the trajectory of climate change if we urgently and collectively reshape how we live and work. Technology is central to this transformation, and it, too, must be managed with an urgent and collective commitment to mitigate its impacts. As the chief commercial officer of HP Inc., I am very aware of the role our company plays in leading this transformation, the responsibilities it requires and the opportunities it creates.

Alone or in isolation, decades-long commitments are insufficient - especially by the tech industry, whose devices and data centers play a significant role in the use of electricity and consumption of fossil fuels. Aspiration is important, but we must also recognize the imminent need to set short-term, achievable goals in a sea of future-looking sameness.

We can’t wait for 2030 or 2040 - the planet needs saving now. COVID-19 has revealed an unmissable opportunity for the tech industry to be part of the solution. There are several ways the tech industry can have an immediate impact, including reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, building sustainable and transparent supply chains, and using innovative resources to build long-term solutions. Here’s how:

Making recycling truly circular

For decades, the onus was on individuals to make recycling mainstream. Campaigns like “Keep America Beautiful,” which began in the 1960s, encouraged people to confront their own disposal habits. But in focusing on consumer action, we began to overlook the private sector’s role in waste production. In the past decade, however, the business community and consumers alike have begun to question how organizations are addressing waste. It’s imperative, because right now, there are more than 150 million metric tons of plastic in our oceans, with eight million more tons entering it annually - that’s equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year.

Consumers already grasp what it means to place a plastic bottle in a bin or replace plastic shopping bags with reusable totes. These actions are critical for minimizing waste and ocean-bound plastics and must be matched by business investment in circular economies. This is the concept that replaces the traditional “take, make, dispose” process with a “make, use, reuse” model—such as using recycled plastics in the production of our everyday devices and establishing systems to recycle those devices at the end of their life.

HP, for instance, has sourced more than 60 million ocean-bound plastic bottles for use in our products and has committed to eliminate 75 percent of single-use plastic packaging in the near term - by 2025. A true circular economy is not just one that feeds plastics back into the loop but reduces the total amount of materials used to limit additional waste. And once that practice is put in place, its long-term results prove easy to maintain.

This is the next step that the technology industry needs to take: commit to a substantial reduction of materials, aggressively reduce carbon emissions, and create a circular means of production.

Building a transparent and sustainable supply chain

Another residual effect of COVID-19: it has spurred a fundamental reconsideration of global supply chains. As businesses restructure for resiliency, now is the perfect moment to address other issues such as supply chain transparency, human rights and fair trade.

Organizations cannot be blind to the practices of their supply chains, and human rights are fundamental to building a safe supply chain. If global suppliers violate fundamental human rights, safe working environments, and promote wasteful and dangerous sourcing practices, partners must walk away and restructure their pipeline. The technology sector contributes trillions of dollars to global economies and therefore needs to lead the compliance of health, safety and environmental impact; with that purchasing power, we must be careful not to perpetuate – knowingly or not – the very issues of ethics we seek to overcome.

To do so, technology leaders should determine the guiding principles that will govern their strategy, like the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and ensure that suppliers and partners are held to these same standards. It is no small feat, but the only way progress will be made is by looking inside our own organizations and honestly assessing how we can action these strategies in everyday practice.  

COVID-19 has provided an urgent call to action for the tech industry

Our industry must be better at leveraging our own solutions to connect with communities and build an inclusive digital world in which everyone can participate.

For instance, rapid advancements in internet, mobile, artificial intelligence (AI), data management and 5G - when applied strategically in emerging economies - have the ability to lift people out of poverty and nudge countries closer to achieving their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the World Bank, increasing internet penetration to 75 percent in a developing country creates the potential to boost the country’s GDP by $2 trillion. PwC found that implementing AI across agriculture, energy, transportation and water could boost global GDP four percent by 2030, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gases by four percent. UNESCO also cites lack of access to education as the one of the biggest obstacles to social mobility, leaving an opportunity for tech companies to bridge the education gap with sustainable hardware and software solutions.

In these ways, if our industry doesn’t act in the next two to three years to curb waste, reduce greenhouse emissions, make our consumption models more circular and deploy our own solutions within the communities that need them most, we’ll largely be in the same spot come decade’s-end. And that can’t happen. During this pandemic, we’ve already witnessed the power of technology — its ability to provide access to education, give parents with at-home schooling support and bridge the resource gap for underserved communities. Amid the global challenges we currently face, we must lean into this momentum and continue seeking out opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on how our actions impact our planet, its people and our communities. As we slowly emerge from this crisis, let us all consider what actions we can take as consumers and companies to have a positive, lasting impact on our planet.

Image credit: Jürgen Jester/Pixabay

Christoph Schell headshot

Christoph Schell is the Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) of HP, Inc. In this role, Christoph is accountable for all aspects of sales, go-to-market and revenue and margin generation on a global scale.  Christoph has been with HP for over 21 years and has held senior management roles across the globe, most recently as the president of 3D printing and digital manufacturing.

Read more stories by Christoph Schell