ros: Very efficient energy use, Improving workplace metrics
Cons: Lack of transparency for individual products, Poor gender-parity in tech positions, Still reliant on minerals from conflict zones
We can see that Samsung is thinking about sustainability and working to make fairer labor laws. These chips are also especially hard to source sustainably, that require very clean and unique chemicals to be created. However, their workplace demographics, sourcing and fabrication process could still be improved. They could do a better job of showing the sustainability standards for individual chips and products. A complicated catch all sustainability page leaves a lot of unknowns and does not make it seem like the company has sustainability at the top of their mind.
Perhaps the biggest revolution of the 21st century has been the widespread use of electronic devices. Although the official statistics vary, at least 3 billion people use some sort of computing device, and throughout the world more and more people are using laptops, PCs and smartphones. Their production accounts for a large portion of our total research and manufacturing activities, their sustainability is ever more crucial.
Any computer needs memory to be able to run, and DRAM memory is present, in its many variations, in all modern computers to fulfill this role. The materials used in it need to have extremely precise properties, all the way to their nanometer scale, thousands of times smaller than the width of human hair. This level of precision requires very pristine materials, complex machines and pure chemicals. This makes sustainability concerns especially hard to analyze and address. It requires many years of study to truly understand the full manufacturing process of even a single part of a phone or a computer. This is furthered by the somewhat secretive nature of the latest technologies, as they are often developed by individual companies that try to gain an advantage over others with the smallest variations in their process. Yet the scale of the market, its continuously growing economic impact, and its future implications make its sustainability crucial. Samsung, the largest DRAM manufacturer in the world, has in its webpage a section dedicated to sustainability and the environment. We will see how they address issues of sustainability, given how complex this process and its global impact is.
Semiconductors use a wide variety of metals and start from a silicon wafer. Although silicone is a widely available resource, the process through which it goes through to create the pristine wafers on which the chip is built uses thousands of gallons of water and heavy chemicals. On top of this silicon canvas, various semiconductor materials, including modified silicone, germanium and gallium arsenide, are carefully added on top. Then a variety of metals are added on top to serve as electrical links. Digging through Samsung's sustainability page, we find little mention of the energy and material consumption of their chip fabrication process. We do find that they follow all environmental precautions for their chemicals and they list the source of their metals. Around 100 out of 260 of their metal sources are at least partially made from recycled materials, although it is not clear if those 100 materials are used at an equivalent proportion to the rest. Overall, the difficulty in finding their source materials, which is especially hard since they are not found directly under their products, brings down their sustainability score. The process is still very harmful, and the sustainability page does not seem to be at the top of their concerns when making devices. However we know that process engineers are constantly looking at ways to minimize the energy consumption of their systems, so hopefully they are constantly attempting to improve.
Again, the process is complicated, and not much can be found on Samsung’s page. It is relatively less polluting than other industrial processes, however its lack of transparency make it hard to determine how sustainable it is at the Samsung fab. Engineers are constantly improving the fabrication process, and it is significantly less harmful than it was at the beginning of the silicon industry growth, but again, sustainability seems to be barely in the back of the minds of many chip manufacturers, including Samsung.
The tech industry is historically known to be a well paid industry for its engineering employees. Samsung is no exception, and neither is it an exception in its faults. Only 18% of it’s tech employees are women, and an even worse 6% of its leadership team is female. The overall breakdown of the company is 40% female, 60% male, but you can see it is not evenly distributed and the ratio has gotten worse from 2017 to 2019. It is not immediately clear who the operators of the clean rooms, distribution centers and supply chains are. They also rely on various materials that are known to come from places filled with conflict. That is, cobalt and other precious materials that often come from conflict zones and collected by people in precarious conditions. At least 20 of the 260 metal sources used by Samsung come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and its 9 surrounding countries, some of those are listed as Conflict-Affected and High-Risk area sources. Samsung’s table again does a poor job of clearly stating the total percentage of the metals used from these areas in their different products. The sustainability page again says they work hard against child-labor, and have protective migrant worker laws, but it is still not very transparent and leaves much work to be desired.