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Five signs sustainability is (finally) disrupting the consumer tech industry


We reflect on the success of Fairphone, the world’s first modular smartphone, and examines the progress made in the industry since its first release.

Eddie Hamilton

We recently spotted a BBC article about Fairphone, the ethical smartphone company. Back in 2015, seymourpowell and Fairphone teamed up to bring the world's first modular smartphone to life and now, seven years later, it's great to see that they're still leading the way with socially and ecologically sustainable electronics.

This got us thinking: when it comes to sustainability, how has the consumer electronics industry evolved since this release? What are the key developments in legislation, innovation and consumer trends over the past seven years? If Fairphone helped to kickstart this movement, then where is it heading?

Before we jump in, let’s remind ourselves of the sustainability challenges this industry is facing. There are a few important topics which I will briefly outline, but this is by no means an exhaustive analysis.

The first challenge is the rapidly growing flood of e-waste and the immense social and environmental toll it represents. There are a couple of drivers that have led to e-waste taking top spot as ‘fastest growing waste stream’, globally.

Factors like shorter product life cycles, scarce repair options and higher consumption rates are fuelling this waste stream. The shorter product life cycle is an interesting topic. Planned obsolescence (the idea of deliberately shortening a product’s lifespan by designing a failure event into the product) in fact stems from the desire to combat a humanitarian crisis. Bernard London, a prominent economist from the Great Depression days, advocated that planned obsolescence would increase consumption, stimulate economies and help starving families out of dire situations. Today, that same brilliant idea is implemented to make iPhones a bit sluggish after a few years of use – just ask Chilean iPhone users who successfully sued Apple for $3.4 million…

Fairphone 2 by Seymourpowell

But e-waste is down to more than electronics being disposed of. The quantity of electronics produced is also increasing. This is due to higher levels of disposable income, urbanisation and industrialisation, collectively enabling more people to own washing machines, smart phones and hover boards. Faster production rates, lower production costs.

Of course, e-waste is the downstream problem. But upstream, the realms of mining, manufacturing and ethical supply chain management also represent a colossal challenge. It takes 2.2 million litres of water to mine 1 ton of lithium (the key ingredient for lithium-ion batteries). That’s roughly a 2000:1 waste to product ratio, by weight. Have a look at the title image and you’ll see what 2.2 million litres of toxic water from lithium mining looks like – curiously beautiful, as it turns out. Add this story up for all of the precious rare earth elements and metals which make up a smart phone, and you begin to appreciate why manufacturing a typical 200g smartphone can produce 86kg of waste material.

‘Precious’ and ‘rare’ are important words to bear in mind here. The minerals which allow products to vibrate, respond to touch and speak to satellites are unsurprisingly of great value and in rapidly limiting supply. With this comes conflict over mines, child labour and horrifically unethical supply chains. These industrial systems must transition from extractive to regenerative to start undoing all that damage. This means actively seeking to improve the quality of life for all stakeholders involved, from mine to factory to shop shelf and beyond. Which is exactly what the ‘Fair’ in Fairphone means.

Ok, doom and gloom over. Here’s a roundup of our top five sustainability developments in the world of consumer tech, following the release of the Fairphone 2.

1. Right to Repair

Introduced in the UK on July 8th 2021, the ‘Right to Repair’ law legally requires manufacturers to make spare parts available to consumers and third-party companies. The legislation is aimed at extending the life cycle of a range of devices and appliances by up to 10 years. For consumers, it currently covers dishwashers, washing machines/dryers, refrigeration appliances and televisions/ electronic displays. Non-consumer products such as electric motors, retail refrigerators, light sources (and more!) are also included. These are some top offender categories but, of course, we hope the law will add more products to this list in due course. Manufacturers would be wise to proactively prepare for such an eventuality.

2. France Repair Scheme

Any electronics’ aficionado worth their salt will know of wiki-based, repair guide/ online community site, ifixit: the go-to place for guides, materials and tools when repairing domestic electronics. ifixit publish repairability scores for products and France have recently written a similar scoring system into law – the first country in Europe to do so. Current categories include smartphones, laptops, washing machines, TVs and lawnmowers. Manufacturers must self-grade their products using a government issued spread sheet (which you can view on the ifixit website).

3. More Modular Firsts

Following the first modular smart phone is the first modular laptop, Frame. Pitched to consumers as a laptop designed to last 10 years, the Frame laptop has easily upgradable and modular components, as well as a community run marketplace for buying / reselling parts. The laptop itself has received mixed reviews online, touted for its great sustainability credentials and critiqued for its approach to upgradability. Other sustainability-minded modular consumer electronics include Gerrard Street Headphones and the brilliantly named HP Elite x2 G4 tablet.

4. Apple Announces Self-Repair

Sensing the inevitable, Apple have taken an unpredicted step forward. Late last year, it announced that parts, tools and guides for repair would be available to individual consumers (only for their latest iPhones). There are reasons to be both surprised and unsurprised by this. Historically, Apple have held true to a ‘closed box’ ethos with their products. Users must not tinker, nor mess with the inside of such a beautifully crafted device. However, behind the scenes, Apple have been designing for repairability for years. iPhones have steadily become faster and easier to repair or refurbish by a certified professional, in order to facilitate their buy-back scheme and in store repair. The difference now is that they’re designing for consumer access to this process, unleashing the tools and knowhow for global iPhone users to flex their tech-savvy muscles.

Library of things by Seymourpowell

5. New Models of Use & Ownership

We’ve covered legislation and product innovation, but how about new business models? To reduce the environmental toll of consumer electronics we don’t always need a radical redesign of products, but perhaps just a rethink on the consumption model. Apple have been doing this with their steady shift to service subscriptions like Music, TV and Fitness. To further shift away from our default ‘linear’ consumption model, more and more businesses are favouring access over ownership with rent-able and share-able products. This is right at the heart of Circular Economy thinking. Models like this provide affordable access to high quality products for those that might not be able to fork out on the top shelf stuff. Admittedly renting is not a new idea… it is, however, having a resurgence. Some examples include Grover (tech rental), Lime Bike (e-bike rental), Fat Lama (the Airbnb of ‘stuff’), Gerrard Street (leasable headphones) and Library of Things (high-street product rental). The latter we are particularly proud of, as we helped define the first self-service-thing-rental site in Crystal Palace.

Eddie Hamilton is an Industrial Designer and Sustainability Lead at Seymourpowell