Upgrade of downgrade: Who really wins and loses when we upgrade technology?

Read Time:   |  3rd September 2020

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We lust after new technology, but who really wins and loses when we upgrade? Charlotte Willis investigates.

“Hello, Charlotte. According to our records of your phone contract, we have some great news: you’re due an upgrade!”

A familiar message, which will either manifest feelings of excitement at the thought of a new handset boasting modest technological advancements, or a sinking feeling accompanied by thoughts quite the opposite.

The technology industry is fast-paced: what’s ground-breaking for a few months soon becomes yesterday’s outdated concept. Advancements and changeovers in technology occur just as often as the fast-paced movements of seasonality in the fashion industry, except in this case, old technologies rarely make such a vintage comeback in mainstream society.

Technology companies are continually pushing our purchasing habits towards investing in their latest releases.

So much so, many of us have become convinced that an upgrade to our phone, laptop or smart device will somehow enhance our lives (and our bragging rights) simply by the means of an additional 2mp front-facing 3D camera, which you never knew you needed, until now.

While I’m not one to hamper the development of technology, what does this endless cycle of upgrading our devices spell for the global community and our ever vulnerable environment?

Tech trends

New tech items are lusted after. Their release cause hundreds of avid fans and customers to add themselves to queues outside well-known outlets every year, eagerly awaiting the chance to get their hands on the latest model.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these customers consider the consequences of their materialistic relationships with technology.

Chances are, each customer will have owned their current tech device for a relatively short period of time (around 20-22 months for mobile phones) before making the decision to upgrade.

20-22 months shouldn’t be long enough for phones to begin malfunctioning, provided you don’t have a penchant for swimming or skydiving with your device, that is.

Breakages considered, the majority of us will be upgrading our devices to keep up an illusion of staying on trend and up-to-date, lured in by a very modern, materialistic drive to buy new, ditch old.

Upgrades aren’t universally welcomed

This desire to stay up to date may seem harmless on the face of it, but behind the screen, some of our most vulnerable communities across the globe are being exploited and put directly at risk from this never-ending technological obsession.

You may see no harm in sending your old devices to their resting place at electronic-waste (e-waste) recycling centres. After all, we trust companies to responsibly dispose of our devices and technology.

However, you may be surprised to find out that the overwhelming majority, 80% or more, of our electronic waste is actually shipped off, legally or illegally, to lesser economically developed countries and communities for “disposal”.

For example, almost 18,000 tonnes of electronic waste is dumped into Ghana every year. This waste includes everything from laptops and mobile phones, to e-readers and smart devices such as watches and rings.

While here, members of vulnerable black and ethnic communities risk their health extracting trace metals, such as lead and mercury, by burning and breaking open the electronic items, without the use of proper equipment or protective clothing.

A treacherous way of life, made possible by a wasteful Western world’s never-ending need for replenishing and replacing technology.

Exploitative practices

Furthermore, while not directly related to technology waste, but of equal importance to consider, is the increasingly exploitative nature of technology manufacture.

Racial and gender discrimination is widespread across technology manufacturing, with many companies relying upon foreign mineral mining industries which are rife with unfair practices and exploitation.

What’s more, assembly workers are all too often extremely underpaid for their work in crafting your devices, driven by profiteering. Interestingly, bear in mind how your new device costs so much money, yet the workers who assemble your device will most often receive a hairline salary in comparison.


Disposal of e-waste is an emerging environmental health issue, as well as being incredibly harmful to developing communities.

The disposal of technological waste is a rapidly-growing area of formal waste management, driven by continual upgrading and the development of more advanced devices, leading many experts to believe that we are soon to be on the cusp of an electronic pollution disaster.

Electronics contain harmful components such as cadmium, heavy metals and brominated flame retardants, which when exposed to the environment from landfill sites, incinerators or via informal processing of e-waste, emits harmful gasses and pollutants into the environment.

For example, traces of e-waste pollutants are, staggeringly, finding their way into the food chain in some countries. Contaminating the soils, toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic are having negative impacts upon species of plants and wildlife who reside in the soil.

These harmful elements remain in the food chain, risking the future of many species and communities alike. The leaching of e-waste into the groundwater is also impacting upon streams, ponds and lakes, resulting in sickness and poisoning of water-dwelling species as well as humans who use unfiltered freshwater for drinking and washing.

Safer e-waste management procedures are required to prevent these toxins from being released, particularly in developing and at-risk communities.

A sustainable and safe upgrade

With awareness surrounding e-waste beginning to grow, I hope that we will adopt a preventative strategy of technological waste management, before we enter the realms of fast-fashion, ocean-plastic and food waste.

We all have a critical role to play as consumers of technology to choose when and how we upgrade, and to do so responsibly. Before you consider upgrading your device, ask yourself the following questions:

• How long have I had my device for and is it still in good working order?

• Why am I wanting to upgrade my device? Is it for materialistic reasons?

• If so, how different is the newer device going to be to my existing one? Are these differences worth the wastage of my current device?

• Could I re-vamp my current device instead? Perhaps do a factory reset, upgrade the software or get a new battery?

• Can I send my device to be repaired or ask my manufacturer for assistance?

If you are going to consider an upgrade, ensure that you recycle your device using traceable recycling companies. I would also encourage you to source a factory-refurbished device, or a device from a reputable company with an ethical ethos.

You can take a look at the Ethical Consumer’s website to find out the best and worst tech companies and brands to purchase from, ensuring you use your buying power for the better.

We all have a serious role to play in shaping the future of electronic waste and its impact upon the environment, and the wellbeing of disadvantaged and vulnerable communities around the globe – and it begins with re-assessing our relationship with upgrading our devices.

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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