The consumer technology industry has been slower than other sectors to get greener products into the hands of customers. The reasons for this slow progression are many, layered and complicated, but the business case for green technology is finally improving.
“If you look at other industries, you actually see more sustainable behavior and a bit more transparency,” says Eva Gouwens, CEO of Fairphone, a small sustainable smartphone maker based in Amsterdam. “The electronics industry has been a bit behind.”
For years, consumer technology companies have resisted adopting greener practices because they were expensive. But they’re not solely to blame: consumers have traditionally wanted only the latest and greatest gadgets, regardless of the impact on the environment, and government regulations on repairability and recyclability have been minimal.
As each of these factors changes, consumer technology begins to change. Katie Green, Sustainability Experience Planner for Dell’s Customer Product Group, likens the slow evolution of sustainable consumer electronics to a human life cycle.
“We’re teenagers now,” says Green. “We’re out of the toddler stage and into young adults. We’ve come a long way in packaging and plastics, and we’re growing into other, more challenging areas of product design.”
According to a 2021 Pew Research study, more than 97% of Americans now own a smartphone, with more than 300 million people walking around with devices in their pockets. About 75% of Americans own a laptop, while about half own a tablet.
More than three-quarters of the industry’s CO2 emissions come from the manufacturing, shipping and first-year use of smartphones, laptops and tablets alone. When devices are no longer wanted, they become e-waste. A 2019 World Economic Forum report estimates that around 55 million tons of e-waste are generated annually, and this is expected to grow to more than 132 million tons by 2050.
As the world becomes more aware and focused on the climate crisis, consumer demands are changing and Generation Z is driving change. A recent report by First Insight and the Wharton School found that 75% of Gen Z participants would opt for sustainable goods over branded products. Their concern for sustainability is also influencing other generations.
Supply chain improvement
Many consumer electronics companies have significantly reduced their reliance on single-use plastics and non-recyclable packaging, which many in the industry agree was the result of the current sustainability movement. Now, more tech manufacturers are upping the ante and helping their suppliers become greener.
For example, Acer, which makes a range of products from PCs for advanced gaming to Chromebooks for education, has launched its Earthion mission initiative, which includes working with and incentivizing suppliers to become greener.
“We ask all of our key component suppliers and all of our factories to join us in reducing their own emissions, and then we give them points and more business,” says Gregg Prendergast, president of Acer Pan-America Operations . .
Acer is not the only one to make these commitments. Google was an early adopter of ESG (environmental, social and governance) initiatives when it announced its net-zero ambitions in 2007. In 2020, Apple said it would make its supply chain net-zero by 2030. HP, Dell and Lenovo has also committed to going zero.
Samsung also recently announced a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions companywide by 2050 and to achieve net zero emissions in its consumer electronics business by 2030. Part of this promise includes being completely carbon neutral, which has a big impact. challenge, according to Mark Newton, head of sustainability at Samsung Americas.
“By 2027, Samsung will be 100% renewable worldwide, except in Korea,” says Newton. “Korea is a special challenge. We have a lot of semiconductor manufacturing going on there, and the infrastructure is not really well developed yet. So we were leaning into that and not just waiting for it to happen, and hopefully we can get there. We won’t get to zero without it. We have to figure that part out.”
Growing awareness, regulation
Technological and recycling processes have advanced so much that consumers may not be aware that they are choosing a greener and more sustainable device. The industry says that going green no longer means compromising on cost, performance, durability or lifespan.
“Consumers don’t know it, but they’re actually buying a computer with sustainable materials,” Green says of Dell’s products. “Consumers buy them without knowing it, and ideally they don’t pay more for it. We really want to make sure our sustainable products don’t cost more or become prohibitive.”
Newton adds that the industry has been “quietly working” on improvements, but needs to do more to educate consumers about them.
“The best thing is that we don’t have to invent ourselves. We just have to communicate it more effectively,” he says.
When it comes to defining and governing green devices, each country has its own requirements and regulations, of varying strength and effectiveness.
In January, France approved a repair requirement for laptops, smartphones and tablets. This new law requires device makers to tell consumers how repairable their products are using a score of one to ten.
It’s part of a movement to combat both the growing demands on our planet’s resources and planned obsolescence. The push is for companies to give their products a score on the “repairability index,” which includes how easy it is to take the device apart and how easy it is for people to get everything from parts to technical documents.
France won’t start fines for not complying with the index until next year, but companies like Fairphone are already starting to use the scores and educate their customers.
Making a good business out of green technology
As these factors converge to push consumer technology companies toward a greener, more sustainable future, the business case is starting to take hold.
“What you see now is that other companies are becoming more interested and aware of sustainability,” says Fairphone’s Gouwens. “I also really believe that, to some degree, it’s the leaders who decide, ‘Hey, this is important.'”
Newton says the business case for sustainability also comes from focusing on the larger impact a company has on its markets and the long-term impact of that on market share.
“If you’re not considering social and environmental impacts when you’re making business decisions, you’re not making fully informed business decisions,” he says. “Incorporating these off-balance sheet things into that decision helps our leaders make better decisions. When we do that, we’re likely to stay in business longer, which is another definition of sustainability.”