The consumer technology industry has been slower than other sectors to get greener products in the hands of customers. The reasons behind this slow progression are numerous, layered, and complicated, but the business case for green technology is finally improving.
“If you look to other industries, you actually see more sustainable behavior, and a bit more transparency,” says Eva Gouwens, CEO of Amsterdam-based Fairphone, a small sustainable-smartphone manufacturer. “The electronics industry has been a bit of a laggard.”
For years, consumer tech companies have been resistant to adopting greener practices because they were costly. But they alone are not to blame: Consumers have traditionally wanted only the latest and greatest gadgets regardless of the impact on the environment, and government regulations regarding repairability and recyclability have been minimal.
As each of these factors changes, consumer technology is beginning to shift. Katie Green, a sustainability experience planner for the client product group at Dell, equates the slow evolution of sustainable consumer electronics to a human life cycle.
“We’re teenagers by now,” Green says. “We’re out of the toddler stage and growing into young adults. We’ve made a lot of progress in packaging and in plastics, and we’re growing into other more difficult areas of the 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. Around 75% of Americans own a laptop computer, while roughly half own a tablet.
More than three-fourths of the industry’s CO2 emissions come from the manufacturing, shipping, and first-year usage of smartphones, laptops, and tablets alone. When the devices are no longer wanted, they become electronic waste. A 2019 World Economic Forum report estimated around 55 million tons of global e-waste is generated per year, and that is expected to grow to more than 132 million tons by 2050.
As the world becomes more aware of and focused on the climate crisis, consumer demands are shifting, and Generation Z is driving the change. A recent report by First Insight and the Wharton School found that 75% of Gen Z participants would opt for sustainable goods over brand-name goods. Their concern for sustainability is influencing other generations as well.
Improving the supply chain
Many consumer electronic companies have significantly reduced their reliance on single-use plastics and nonrecyclable packaging, which many in the industry agree was the low-hanging fruit of the current sustainability movement. Now, more technology manufacturers are upping the ante and helping their suppliers go more green.
For example, Acer, which manufactures a range of products from advanced gaming computers to Chromebooks for education, has launched its Earthion mission initiative, which includes working with and incentivizing suppliers to become greener.
“We’re asking all of our key components suppliers and all of our factories to join us to get their own emissions down, and then we’re giving them points and more business,” says Gregg Prendergast, president of Acer’s Pan-America Operations.
Acer isn’t alone in making such commitments. Google was one of the earliest adopters 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 have also made commitments to go net zero.
Samsung, too, has recently announced a commitment to achieve enterprise-wide net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and reach net-zero emissions across its consumer electronics business by 2030. Part of that promise includes going completely carbon neutral, which presents a tremendous challenge, according to Mark Newton, head of sustainability for Samsung Americas.
“By 2027, Samsung will be 100% renewable everywhere in the world except for Korea,” Newton says. “Korea is a special challenge. We have a lot of semiconductor manufacturing that happens there, and the infrastructure really isn’t well developed yet. So we were leaning into that and not just waiting for it to occur, and we do expect to be able to get there. We’re not going to get to net zero without that. We have to figure this part of it out.”
Growing awareness, regulation
Tech and recycling processes have gotten so advanced that consumers may not be aware that they’re choosing a greener and more sustainable device. The industry says that going green no longer means compromising on cost, performance, durability, or life span.
“Consumers don’t know, but they really are buying a PC with sustainable materials,” Green says of Dell products. “Consumers are buying them without knowing it, and ideally not paying more for it. We really want to make sure that our sustainable products don’t cost more and aren’t cost prohibitive.”
Newton adds that the industry has been “quietly working” on improvements but needs to do more to educate consumers about them.
“If you’re not considering social and environmental impacts when you’re making business decisions, then you’re not making fully informed business decisions.”Mark Newton, head of sustainability, Samsung Americas
“The great thing about it is we don’t have to make it up. 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 passed a repairability 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 move to combat both the growing demands on our planet’s resources and planned obsolescence. The impetus is on companies to give their products a score on the “repairability index,” which includes how easy the device is to take apart and how easily people can get everything from spare parts to technical documents.
France won’t start enforcing fines for failing to comply with the index until next year, but companies like Fairphone are already starting to utilize the scores and educate their customers.
Making green tech good business
As these factors converge to push consumer technology companies toward a greener and more sustainable future, the business case is beginning to take hold.
“What you now see is that other companies become more and more interested in and aware of sustainability,” says Gouwens of Fairphone. “I’m also really convinced that to a certain extent it is leaders deciding, ‘Hey, this is important.’”
Newton says that 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, then you’re not making fully informed business decisions,” he says. “Bringing these things that aren’t on the balance sheet into that decision helps our leaders make better decisions. When we do that, we’re probably going to stay in business longer, which is another definition of sustainability.”
This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.