Sustainability. A word coined to describe the focus on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It’s clearly an aspect of our everyday life that we cannot overlook since it affects people and environment as well as economy. As individuals and consumers we make choices that have an impact on all three areas of life and society, many of the choices being related to what and how we consume. A part of this is products we purchase and use.
Let’s take a look at some facts.
Electronic devices as well as mobile devices among them have become a necessity of modern life. Including 3.3 smartphone users, there are 1 billion mobile device connections more than people worldwide. This does not mean that every person has such device, but that some people have multiple devices. 1 It does not take a scholar to understand, that this amount of devices has an impact on sustainability.
In fact, it’s estimated that 50 million tonnes of electronic waste will be generated globally in 2019, and only 20 % of it is recycled. This means that 40 million tonnes of e-waste end up in landfill or is treated in an illegal or sub-standard way. A good amount of that waste is smartphones and other mobile devices. 2
When we purchase new mobile devices, the number one criterion for selecting one over another, is not sustainability, but the price and performance. However, the burden of that waste does not rest on consumers’ shoulders alone. It’s also a responsibility of the manufacturers.
A part of the sustainability of an e-device is the amount of energy that was used to manufacture it, commonly referred to as embodied energy. This includes all its components and materials as well as the machines and shipping methods used in the process. In the worst cases, the embodied energy of the product exceeds the energy consumption of the product during its lifespan in use.
Further more, the type of energy for the powering the device itself should be considered. What equipment is used to charge the device? Are there ways to make the device self-sufficient?
This sets the innovation, development and design teams in an important role. Everything from the weight, complexity, shipment and logistics of the product’s different parts and components to the type of energy that the manufacturing plant uses are things to consider when creating new products.
It all comes down to optimising, and choosing the best possible combinations throughout the entire manufacturing process. That is, when sustainability is an important part of the manufacturing company’s policies. And without a question, it should be.
Let’s say a company has manufactured a product whose embodied energy amount is fairly low. That must be sustainable choice, right? Not necessarily. A typical problem in the electronics industry is the short lifespan of the devices. A life cycle of a smartphone is usually only 2–4 years. That’s not only because the battery or another component degrades, but also because so often new or updated software outdates the device. If this is done intentionally, it’s called planned or built-in obsolescence. It’s probably one of the ugliest and greediest-sounding concept in any industry, because it exploits consumers’ desire for the trendy, latest stuff, sometimes not even leaving any choice. Let alone because it contributes to the gigantic pile of waste.
A sustainable way to approach a product’s lifespan is to plan its end life potential. Could the product have a different use after its original intended purpose? Can it or some parts of it be recycled? For some products, it’s harder than for others, which depends on what type of product is in question.
There are products that lose their value either because they break down or cease to function (for one reason or another). Some things’ value fade because some people just buy the latest one because they want to stay ahead or look trendy in the eyes of others. But sometimes both of the previous are replaced by sentimental value. That’s where, the characteristics of human nature show their positive side and naturally expands the lifespan of a product, potentially for infinity.
An example of this kind of product is high-quality jewelry. It’s something that people mostly buy to keep or gift. The end life potential of a piece of jewelry is great because we value its timeless beauty and patina, or the gesture and person who gifted them is meaningful to us. We don’t throw it away just like that, even if we stopped using it. There’s always a chance that we pass it or gift it on to someone who wants it or that we recycle it by re-selling it.
A fairly new addition to the family of jewelry products is smart jewelry. They are wearable jewelry-looking devices that have some sort of “smart” electronic or digital function that connects you with people or information you value or find useful. Now you probably start to connect the bits and pieces of this article and think of the sustainability of this kind of jewelry. What needs to be considered?
First of all, to reach its highest possible level of sustainability, a piece of smart jewelry needs to be optimised for the lowest possible embodied energy. Its energy consumption must not exceed that of its life in use. The less complex its components and all areas of the manufacturing process are, the better. If it includes software or additional services, they should stay valid as long as possible, not just for a few years. The way it’s powered should be smart, gadget-free, or even self-sufficient. On top of the cake, it’s design and appearance should be appealing high-quality work.
That is a lot, but as the demand for sustainability is very present today and probably will not stop any time soon, there’s a true need for both conscious choices by consumers as well as innovation and sense of responsibility by the manufacturers.
1 WorldoMeters U.N. data, GSMA Intelligence via BankMyCell.
2 WEEE Forum