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Does Big Tech care about climate activism? I think so.

Does Big Tech care about climate activism? I think so.

How many devices – phones, laptops, tablets – have you owned in your lifetime? 5? 10? 20? Would it shock you to know that just one in five of those devices have been recycled?

It’s a stat the tech sector isn’t keen to promote. But fail to address the problem of electronic waste – e-waste – and ‘our planet’s survival’ will be on the line, the UN warned in 2019.

So when I saw an ad pop up on my Instagram for Samsung King’s Cross Space – an ‘alternative learning experience to empower the next generation of innovators’ to find solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges – it’s fair to say I was a little sceptical. 

Samsung, the world’s second-largest tech company, shipped 270 million mobiles last year, as reported in Samsung’s Mobile Shipment Report in 2020. It’s a huge, powerful producer making gadgets we see in factories we don’t. For them to offer up their wisdom on sustainability felt a little hypocritical. But they had me interested.

I was accepted onto the Turn Climate Anxiety into Positive Action programme: two intense weeks of sessions on climate activism and wellbeing. Fronted by slick trailers and exciting headline speakers, I thought I knew what was to come – lots of talk but little action. 

I was wrong.

I heard from experts like Lady Leshurr, Jack Harries, Samia Dumbuya, Yazzie Min, and Ed Winters, as well as sustainability reps from Samsung. I had plenty of questions for them all – and especially those I thought I’d disagree with – but each taught me something new and shone a light on how to look after myself and how to be a more inclusive climate activist.

The second week was project time. Tasked with producing a prototype for a technology that would help tackle the climate crisis, my group developed a concept called Scale: a mark on product packaging to show consumers how sustainable their purchase is. 

A long week of planning, prototyping and presenting led to a concept that we’re excited to take forward to Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow: an open competition for young people to win mentorship and support to develop their tech ideas to improve the world.

I left feeling motivated and empowered about the tech sector’s commitment to making a positive change. But it didn’t take long for that to be tainted.

Hearing about Samsung’s involvement in the construction of a coal power plant in Vietnam – at a time when other tech giants are making strides forward towards carbon neutrality – was disappointing. I read the criticism levied against them for ‘greenwashing’ this construction project through the very programme I’d just left feeling so positive about.

But, as with most climate challenges, there’s no simple answer. Activism tends to bundle all cases of greenwashing under one roof – when the truth is that all cases are different. The backlash after the discovery that McDonald’s paper straws aren’t recyclable is perhaps more justified than against fast fashion retailer Primark’s in-store clothes recycling bins, after all.

Is it possible to have ethical and sustainable consumption under capitalism? I think so. But these are complex, emotional discussions that will inevitably take time to create the kind of sustainable change we’d all like to see. What we can all be doing in the meantime is lobbying companies to begin these conversations.

Companies like Samsung owe us action to neutralise their impact on our planet. But for their faults, my experience on their activism programme motivated me to start thinking about what I can do to create change, and giving me the resources and platforms to design solutions to tackle the climate emergency. I can applaud that.

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The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, or an endorsement by, Raleigh International.