Can you reduce environmental costs when the chips are down?

There has been much alarm in recent weeks over the consequences of a global shortage of semiconductors (otherwise known as chips or processors). But could it also be a blessing in disguise in broad environmental terms?

Let’s examine the problem. Take the PC industry which notched up record sales in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to home working and remote learning prompted many businesses, organisations and people to buy more notebooks. Analysts believe it would have fared even better if the market had not been affected by shortages of components, including semiconductors.

A recent article in ZDNet suggested that, in addition to computers and smartphones, the global shortage will start to affect other products, such as children’s toys, microwaves, washing machines, video doorbells and cars.

Daniel Goncalves, research manager for Western Europe at IDC, told ZDNet: “The problem is that demand is much stronger than it used to be, so the pace of production is much slower than it should be. This is why it is very hard to predict when this will end.”

It is predicted that production won’t catch up with demand until 2022.

ZDNet said people would have “few alternatives to waiting it out before they receive the products they purchased. Other options include buying secondhand or choosing other providers”.

Sounds inconvenient, doesn’t it? Having to wait for something because demand is too high is such an imposition.

But what’s wrong with waiting or buying something secondhand instead?

Is it wrong to think that a small pause in our relentless consumption is not necessarily a bad thing? That being forced to wait or reconsider a potential purchase is not the end of the world.

All products reliant on semiconductors carry an environmental cost in their manufacture, transportation and use. Reducing that production, even if it’s only because of a shortage of components, decreases that environmental cost. If the delay persuades people to buy secondhand or refurbished equipment instead, it has an even greater environmental benefit because older devices have a much reduced carbon footprint compared to new ones.

There’s also a potential knock-on delay to future demand for new products if people buy secondhand devices instead. If someone reuses an older device, they delay buying a new one for at least one or two years. So if global semiconductor shortages encourage more people to buy more refurbished devices, that’s all to the good. At least as far as the environment is concerned.

During that hiatus, perhaps semiconductor makers and the companies that manufacture PCs, notebooks, smartphones and other devices could take a step back and focus more of their time on reducing the environmental cost of their manufacturing processes and the usage of their devices.

Imagine if the delay caused by the semiconductor shortage was used by manufacturers to accelerate improvements to their production processes and reductions in the environmental cost of their products.

Just think how impressive it would be if they could get a year ahead on plans to reduce their impact on the environment – and that they could achieve that goal because the chips were down.