I find it encouraging that SEMI is stepping up its efforts to help the semiconductor industry become more environmentally responsible. There have been technology roadmaps in this industry for as long as I can remember. Now we’re talking about sustainability roadmaps and standardized reporting processes.

On March 18, I attended a SEMI-sponsored webinar called “Environmental Sustainability—Semiconductor Industry Challenges.” Here are a few of my takeaways.

Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution

The semiconductor industry has a great opportunity and also a great responsibility. Here’s the conundrum: How can we use technology to enable global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while also minimizing the emissions we are causing by manufacturing the semiconductor chips needed to make the technology work?

Digitalization comes with environmental benefits. Think of all the emissions and pollution saved when millions of workers stopped commuting to an office. They couldn’t have done so without our industry. Semiconductor devices power systems that improve efficiency and reduce waste in all sorts of manufacturing facilities. Sensors that detect leaks save water, reduce energy use, and avert disasters like chemical spills.

Fabs are power-hungry, water-consuming facilities. James Amano from SEMI shared some statistics: one fab uses up to 9 million gallons of water per day and enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

The demand for chips is growing, so companies are building more fabs. Ideally, these fabs should run on 100% renewable energy, filter and recycle all their water, and send zero waste to landfill.

In reality, the infrastructure might not be there to make those goals possible today. Island nations face space constraints. They don’t have acres of land available for solar panel installation, for example.

Analyst Dean Freeman expressed concern that the growth in renewable energy will not come fast enough to make up for the environmental cost of chip production. Without conservation efforts, merely changing the source of electricity is not enough.

The semiconductor manufacturing industry needs to become more efficient. That can mean changing materials and processes so that it takes less energy to produce each wafer or circuit board. Efficiency improvements can also involve designing chips and systems so that they consume less power during use.

Scope 3 and the Supply Chain

We are hearing a lot about what companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google are doing to improve sustainability and reduce GHG emissions. But they can’t achieve their aggressive goals without cooperation from suppliers and customers. Materials and equipment companies need to be part of the solution.

Emissions from the supply chain—also known as Scope 3—are much greater than in-house emissions for all but the most vertically integrated companies. Over 70% of Apple’s emissions are from manufacturing its products. None of that manufacturing is done at Apple-owned facilities.

How do we tackle Scope 3 emissions? Part of the problem is knowing where to start and how far upstream and downstream to look. Chris Libre, ESG Director at Applied Materials, described Scope 3 calculations as “assumptions on top of assumptions.”

SEMI’s Sustainability Advisory Council is considering how to standardize sustainability reporting processes and better share accurate data throughout the supply chain. Those efforts should help.

We Need Diverse Voices

We all need to work together to solve some very tough problems. That collaboration will work best when all voices in the supply chain get heard. That includes those of startups that are developing creative solutions to address challenges in energy, water, and materials. Companies like Micron are funding those startups, which is good news.

I noticed something at the SEMI webinar that would have escaped my attention years ago. All the speakers, except for the moderator, were white men. Did SEMI realize this, and did they try to find a more demographically diverse group? I don’t know because I didn’t ask.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is often considered to be separate from sustainability. But social and environmental concerns are linked. We need to hear from the communities most affected by pollution and climate change. Including women in discussions is likely to create a more collaborative approach to problem-solving.

In all fairness, some panelists mentioned DEI. Bill Seymour, VP of the CSR Council at Entegris, pointed out the company’s goal to have a board with 50% representation from “women and/or individuals from underrepresented groups.”

Celebrate Small Wins While Pushing for Bigger Ones

Prioritizing sustainability is no longer optional. Many companies in the semiconductor industry are behind in their efforts to reduce emissions, and they need to do more. Net-zero carbon by 2050 is not enough. We need more stringent goals for the next five to eight years.

It is, however, important to recognize progress toward sustainability goals. Even setting and announcing goals is an important first step.

Entegris, for example, issued its first corporate social responsibility (CSR) report in 2021. When I think some companies have been reporting for 15 years, it sounds rather late to be starting now.

But the point is that they have decided to be more systematic in their approach to sustainability. They have 2030 goals in place and have already completed projects that resulted in significant reductions in resource consumption.

SEMI has got several working groups related to sustainability. The Materiality Assessment WG is identifying which ESG issues to prioritize to make the biggest difference. The Ambition Setting and Baselining WG is in charge of the SEMI sustainability roadmap. The Industry Pact WG is working to unify the industry approach to sustainability and determine a shared vision.

Here’s to a semiconductor industry that works together and shares best practices that will move all of us forward.

Julia Freer Goldstein

Julia Freer Goldstein is an author and business owner on a mission to make manufacturing…

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