Joy and I both own smart phones, laptops, iPads, GPS tracking watches, electric toothbrushes etc. Like you, we own and use a bunch of electronics on a daily basis. We’re also lucky enough to live in the developed world and rely on technology for our basic needs (electricity, water, transport). But to what extent is any of it sustainable? Has any of it been made with human rights and the environment in mind, considering for example, the limited resources available and the aggregate impact the product has at the end of it’s life?
We’re pretty sure the answer is a resounding, no!
But let’s be honest, short of escaping to a desert island and living off the grid for the rest of our lives (the dream), we now need technology to get by. So, how do we reconcile our reliance on unsustainable tech with our goal of living (read: trying to) sustainably in our day to day lives?
This article covers a few things we can do to shift the imbalance of our unsustainable technology consumption but before we get into the nitty gritty, what is “sustainable technology”?
We think, and the general consensus on the interwebs seems to concur, that sustainable technology can be thought of, or broken down into, two basic categories:
- Day-to-day consumer technology: A combination of different approaches to make our day to day consumption of technology more sustainable. This could include choosing devices that are made ethically with resources that are either renewable or recycled (e.g. a good example is the Fairphone). It could also include a slow tech and minimalist approach to purchasing, using and discarding tech.
Focusing first on where we can make immediate changes, let’s look at day to day consumption including why it’s a hard habit to crack and what we can do to have an impact:
From a sustainability perspective, the tech industry is a bit like the wayward fashion industry:
- Supply chains are long, complex and lack transparency: Raw materials used in consumer electronics are sourced from all over the world so it’s just about impossible to know for sure if the product you’re buying has been produced sustainably. In all likelihood, if the product doesn’t explicitly and unequivocally say that it was made with workers, local communities and environment in mind then it almost certainly was not. Having said that, even if the product is made in a more sustainable fashion, it is unlikely to ever be truly sustainable. Mining, harvesting or extracting any non-renewable materials from the earth (e.g. the metals required for electronic devices) will always be unsustainable
- Keeping up: The consumable technology industry arguably moves just about as fast as the fashion industry. Few of us can keep up with its trends and developments which are principally driven by society’s hyper consumption and businesses’ insatiable focus on growth, sales and profit. Humans the world over have become marketing sponges, we simply can’t help ourselves when it comes to having the latest smart phone, Xbox, iPad, kettle, toaster, etc. Planned obsolescence doesn’t help much either…
So how do we consume sustainably without “falling behind”? Unfortunately, there are no easy or immediate answers. As with our other approaches to sustainable living (eating / shopping, fashion, traveling, body care products), here are a couple of thoughts we’ve come up with to do a better job of both consuming dramatically less and where we do have to consume, being as conscious as possible in our choices:
Much like the slow fashion movements, slow tech and minimalism are movements gaining traction among conscious consumers.
If you’re not familiar with the slow eating / slow fashion movements then, in a nutshell, they’re responses to much of society’s insatiable appetite for unsustainable (and largely unethical) food and fashion. Essentially, these movements aim to change the consumer mindset to one that is conscious and considered – the underlying message is deliberately simple and logical – if you don’t really need it, just don’t buy it and if you do buy it, make it last.
Reducing what we consume is absolutely the first step on this journey for all of us – tech is not immune!
The Minimalists have some sage advice on this topic. Their ethos is priority focused, buy what you really want, what is really important to you and scrap the rest. This can, of course, apply to many technology purchases (and any material possessions for that matter) that are nice to haves but ultimately are not necessary and not really high on your value or priority list. A good example is our DVD player which we’ve used about 5 times in the last year. A completely unnecessary and wasteful purchase.
It goes without saying too that we should use the product until the end of its life. I love a good running watch and since I’ve owned the one in the picture above for about 5 years now I want an upgrade. My current watch however, works just fine (despite taking a bit of time to pick up GPS coordinates) and tracks my mileage within a couple hundred meters (all I really need as an average jogger). Thus, while a new watch would be a treat, it’s an unnecessary purchase that I don’t need right now. Besides the environmental benefit of using a tech product until it’s natural end and not prematurely indulging in something that I don’t need, there’s the added benefit that when my watch does stop working and I do buy another one, I’ll appreciate it so much more because delayed gratification always feels better!
When buying tech, the goal should of course be to purchase technology responsibly. This means looking for tech providers or manufacturers with policies that at the very least consider and present their position on:
- Ethical sourcing of raw materials: Do they, for example, ensure that no child labor is used in the mining of metals and that local communities are adequately compensated for their work?
- Ethical manufacture: Are there adequate policies in place to ensure the well-being of factory workers and that they’re not unduly exposed to pollution or any unsafe working conditions?
- Quality and longevity: Is the product durable and built to last? Can it be repaired if it’s damaged? A solid warranty is usually a sign of a high quality product
- End of life policies: Are there ways to recycle the product or parts of the product at the end of its useful life? Are they rethinking their design policies to move towards a circular economy?
Ideally and hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll start to see more and more tech manufacturers have answers to the above and also go further and find ways to build the circular economy into the very design of the product. Fairphone is a great example of company that we’ll definitely support when our current iphones decide to pack it in.
Of course, we realize that for many tech gadgets the circular economy is not yet hitting its straps: we can’t yet reuse and recycle every bit of our washing machine, but what we can do is put pressure on electronics providers to do better and make sure (as much as our wallet will allow) that we buy the most sustainable products that we can afford. By adopting this habit we’ll not only have a naturally greater appreciation for the product because of its quality but we’ll also be saving the environment from unnecessary waste generated by cheap short-term products that are designed to hit the landfill soon after they leave the shelves.
Up until now the focus of this article has been on reducing consumption where possible and where not possible, purchasing responsible, sustainable consumer technology. But, there’s also that whole other side to sustainable tech that has the core purpose of future proofing our planet. This type of technology will increasingly impact our lives in a positive way. I’ve listed out just a few examples of exciting innovations that are currently being developed to give you an idea of how sustainable tech will make a world of difference. We’ll be covering a lot more on these exciting developments – so watch this space!
- Green Nanotechnology – there are a growing number of uses for nanotechnology that will significantly contribute to sustainable living and environmental and climate protection. For example, researchers in India have developed a $2.50 per year water filter which uses composite nano particles neutralizing contaminants like microbes, bacteria and other harmful matter. This will save thousands of lives every year by preventing diarrorhal diseases from drinking infected water. Specific titanate nanofibers are now being used in the removal of radioactive and hazardous waste clean up. This nano particle’s unique structure gives them a significant absorbent edge over other traditional cleaning agents. There are also nano scaled membranes which are being developed, which allows us to separate noxious gases for the purposes of capturing and storing carbon dioxide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Bio Tech and the Bioeconomy – bioplastics and biofuel are manufactured or created from various types of biomass (i.e. ideally plant matter from non-food grade plant material). As for bioplastics, whether it’s cups, cutlery or a garden chair, they can be manufactured to biodegrade within X amount of years. Biofuel, depending on the type of biomass used as an input, burns a heck of a lot cleaner than any fossil fuel. Over the entire supply chain, up to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions can be saved. This technology is actually nothing new, there’s already a thriving market for bioplastics and biofuel in the USA and EU. As the urgency to reduce carbon footprint increases, the demand for sustainable biofuel and bioplastics will inevitably increase and while there is no one sustainable silver bullet, incremental improvements in this technology will go a long way to help our race against time.
- Renewable Energy – granted this is old news and now a mainstream option for many but it’s still super exciting. More and more consumers from factories to retailers to private homes (and everything in between) are making the switch from coal to renewable energies derived from the sun, wind and water. From a personal home perspective, you can now install your own renewable technology, whether that be solar PV, solar thermal or hydro, there are a lot of options. With renewable energy technology (and also energy storage devices like Tesla’s Powerwall) on the rise, this trend is not going anywhere. However, if you live in an apartment like us and you don’t have the space for your own solar panels or hydro power generator, then you can simply swap to an energy provider that supplies renewable energy. Last year, whilst living in the UK, we made the jump from British Gas to Bulb (a renewable energy provider in the UK) and it was really such a pleasure dealing with an innovative, young company. Not only was the process simple but it turned out to be a cheaper. Supporting an organisation that not only reduces our carbon footprint but also our bill – why the hell not!
Sure, it’s possible that we could go back to pre-smart phone days and get by in this day and age. But we don’t want to just get by, we want to be able to experience and enjoy all the benefits and wizardry that technology has to offer. We want to keep up to date and be connected. But, we want to (and actually need to) do so in a responsible manner which is why we’ve opted for a slow tech diet. For us, that is, purchasing only what we need and only what we love (and will use) and making sure that whatever gadgets we do buy are firstly of a good quality (that will last!) and secondly have been made as ethically and sustainably as possible.
By doing so, we’re not only contributing to a more sustainable way of consuming technology but we’re also supporting a much bigger sustainability effort to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, which include things like affordable and clean energy, industry, innovation and infrastructure, responsible consumption and production, decent work and economic growth, climate action and sustainable cities and communities.
As always, please get in touch with us if you have any thoughts, ideas or comments on sustainable tech and how to reconcile exponential growth with the environment!