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Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Little green shoots? Digital inclusion and the circular economy

Posted on 31 August 2023 by Jason Railton

“I can’t do right for doing wrong” describes perfectly how I sometimes feel about what I can, should and do to prevent the fiery death of humanity because of the climate crisis. Sometimes it feels like every aspect of our lives is a delicate balancing act - our good intentions can have a negative impact and we might not even know it.  

Consider this: you move away from paper-based working. All your systems are digital. You don’t even own a diary anymore, thanks to Outlook (other scheduling software is available). But what about the fact that the environmental impact of tech is now similar to that of the aviation industry? That 16,000,000 trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the 1.9 trillion annual Google searches? That the devices we use to connect to the internet produce 80% of their carbon emissions before we even open the box

The point is it IS a balancing act. Moving online is inherently better for the environment in what it enables us to do. It lets us share, connect, and collaborate in ways that are quicker and cleaner. Above all else, it lets us understand and learn how we can take action for the better. 

Part of the balance is making sure that we do that in a sustainable and ethical way. At SCVO, one of our key organisational priorities is recognising and responding to the climate crisis. In practice, for us in the digital inclusion team, this means taking time to think about where we can concentrate our efforts and provide the support our sector really needs.  

And so, we spent a few months engaging in conversations with some of the voluntary sector’s leading device refurbishment organisations to build a strong, clear and honest picture of what’s happening and how (and if!) we could help. 

These conversations were wide ranging, covering community gardens in Greenock to IT projects in Castle Douglas to social enterprises in Inverness. We heard about the challenges that they face: the lack of awareness for the work they do, uncertain supply lines, limited resourcing, sunk costs, and the frustrations of providing a device but not necessarily being able to provide the crucial connectivity to make it meaningful. 

But beyond the problems, there are so many opportunities. Little green shoots are growing as Scotland develops its understanding of the issues of digital exclusion and the worsening state of our environment. Old laptops are being converted into Chromebooks and used to support more people online. Spare rooms are overflowing with donated tech that, eventually, will make its way to the homes of people that need it most. Organisations are using their savvy with data erasure to compete with the for-profit sector and raise revenue in providing this as a service. 

We wanted to know what we could learn from these passionate, committed people – but crucially we wanted to know what we could do to help them. That’s why we’ll be bringing these organisations together to share their knowledge and work towards collaborative action. We’ll also be looking inwards, to see what we can do as SCVO’s Digital Team to embed those circular principles in our own work. 

Donating old tech and buying second-hand are things that we can all do to work towards more climate conscious behaviours – but we can also spend the time to learn about local initiatives and find the opportunities to enhance digital inclusion in our own communities.  

Digital inclusion is so important. It changes lives. But the message from this sometimes-hidden community is clear: there is an opportunity to take a new, more ethical, and much more sustainable path. We just need to think carefully about what we do next. 

Read our report ‘Natural Allies: Digital inclusion and the circular economy’ here. 

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