This feature first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Close to 30 years ago, all the way back in 1995, legendary NBA star Michael Jordan appeared in a commercial advertising a revolutionary new technology: rechargeable alkaline batteries. The rechargeable standard at the time was nickel-cadmium batteries, now banned in many countries on account of the presence of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal.
Jordan's pitch, which can still be viewed on YouTube, includes the sobering statistic that consumers throw out 20 billion batteries per year — and implicitly urges more environmentally responsible behavior. That message was probably at least a bit groundbreaking in 1995 (especially coming out of the mouth of the famously apolitical Jordan).
In 2023, the drumbeat encouraging environmentally sustainable use of technology has gotten considerably louder and the discussion has branched out to cover all manner of digital devices and associated tools and processes. Supporters of so-called "sustainable technology" hope to dial down the environmental and ecological threats posed by the ongoing boom in technology usage.
Sustainable technology acknowledges the many and varied environmental impacts of everything from consumer electronics and personal internet usage to enterprise networks/data centers and digital infrastructure maintained by governments and international organizations.
What is sustainable technology?
Personal and home electronics like smartphones, TVs, appliances, computers, and laptops are often quick to break down and costly to repair. To some extent, they are designed for the dump.
Smartphones are perhaps the worst culprit: Research shows that the average American uses their smartphone for only 12 months before purchasing a new one. In fact, smartphones have a shorter lifespan than any other tech product on the market. I don't know about you, but I get a new one every year.
Personal and home electronics offer a window into how sustainable technology actually works. There are three key elements of sustainable technology that attempt to address the ongoing design and manufacture of technology products:
Substitution — This addresses the composition of technology products. The idea here is to reduce the inclusion of hazardous materials and shift toward biodegradable components.
Prevention — This addresses both the manufacture of technology products and the implementation of tools and processes. The idea is to improve products so that they are more durable and to eliminate toxins and toxic side effects from manufacturing and implementation.
Efficiency — This addresses whether products and processes have been designed for maximum efficiency. The idea is to reduce technology's massive carbon footprint by optimizing power usage.
Sustainability in technology is not restricted to information technology. There are notable examples of where we are already making inroads, including the transportation sector, where everything from electric buses and 18 wheelers to e-bikes and scooters is already in production and, increasingly, in use.
LED light bulb technology reduces electric bills and power waste simultaneously. Solar and wind power are fueling everything from individual homes to regional power grids. Carbon capture and storage technologies are relatively new, but a budding growth sector. Finally, there are self-sufficient and LEED buildings and construction methods.
One advantage of sustainable technology is that it helps businesses, governments, and other organizations reduce risk. Any of these groups that utilize renewable energy and biodegradable materials are directly protecting their business and organizational assets from the negative effects of climate change.
Time to go green
But how can you know if a product is truly sustainable? The term itself, as well as others such as "ecological," "eco-friendly," or "carbon positive," is not really regulated. Most terminology comes from industry.
What this means is that brands can use this term freely to describe their merchandise. So, buying goods that really are eco-friendly does involve a certain degree of research. There are new startups and companies that are now emerging online, however, with the aim of helping consumers decide which goods are eco-friendly to purchase.
One good example is a platform called Glami, that works like a Google for people who are looking for sustainable fashion products online. Weird but true.
There are quite a few benefits to the IT industry of embracing sustainable technology. Industry research suggests that nearly half of businesses today follow sustainable practices to improve production and innovation. Businesses and other organizations can also attract attention in the investment marketplace by embracing sustainability principles.
Integrating sustainability into your business model can also create cost savings through more efficient and effective use of resources. Sustainability can also create competitive advantages on other fronts: Businesses in the IT sphere and elsewhere often struggle to attract and retain skilled professionals.
Sustainability can be an appealing aspect of your corporate profile to young workers immersed in the negative realities of climate change.
Other areas where sustainable technology can boost both IT-specific and overall industry outcomes include consumption from transportation. Shipping tech products around the world carries its own sustainability cost: In 2021, greenhouse gas emissions from maritime shipping alone came in at 833 million metric tons of carbon.
Data centers all around the world are storing, processing, and distributing large amounts of data that feed to and from our tech devices. These centers use enormous amounts of both energy and water (for cooling). Some experts predict that data centers around the world could account for as much as 10 percent of all global electricity usage by 2030. Improved Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) could save real money.
E-waste is another problem crying out to be addressed. Once sent to a landfill, discarded smartphones and laptops and other forms of e-waste wreak havoc on the environment, leaching out hazardous amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium V, and brominated flame-retardants. The world produces as much as 50 million tons of electronic and electrical waste every year. Only 20 percent of all that is formally recycled. Once again, smartphones take the prize here — one study found that smartphones can leach out more than 17 times the federal threshold for what constitutes hazardous lead waste.
As Michael Jordan encouraged viewers of his long-ago battery advertisement, "We can do a lot better."
Sustainable technology may not be the only answer, but it's a great place to start. First off, generally speaking, we need to design better sustainable technology products. Extending the lifespan of our tech products is perhaps the most important step we can take in reducing their impact on the climate.
Taking action may reduce short-term profits, but there are offsets. One motivation for companies to design their tech products to last longer is the introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) and product takeback legislation. Amazon is one of the most used platforms for the purchase of goods of all kinds, and one of the most criticized, as well.
Big companies, of course, can also be big leaders. Amazon launched its Climate Pledge Friendly program in 2020 to make it easier for customers to discover and purchase the most sustainable products sold via its global storefront. Swedish multinational retailer IKEA has also joined in global recycling and upcycling efforts. The company has created a voucher that will allow its customers to use it on future purchases by having their used furniture assessed online in advance.
Smaller manufacturers and retailers can also have an impact. U.S.-based sound accessories firm House of Marley (a collaboration with the heirs of reggae legend Bob Marley) has been focused from the very start on creating sustainable headphones and earbuds.
And those smartphones I keep mentioning? Turning in your phone can be a tremendous help. The mobile devices debate has been going on for a while: Some sustainability advocates argue that there is truly no need for mobile devices to be launched almost every month, while others fight for "right to repair" leverage against giants like Apple.
In addition to fixing old phones — instead of discarding them — there are other bright ideas out there. Plenty of articles and blog posts have started to circulate online with ideas for how to upgrade old phones. If you've been wondering what to do with those phones that you stuck in a drawer somewhere a few years ago, then do a simple Google search with the keywords "upcycle mobile phone" and you'll get plenty of inspiration.
Big names in the mobile industry are also trying to do less damage to the planet by creating accessories that are more eco-friendly. Samsung, for example, has joined forces with Kvadrat, a Danish brand that has received an Ecolabel certification, to create phone and smartwatch cases that are made from recycled plastic.
The automotive industry was one of the first to focus on sustainability: The effect on our planet of cars has been alarmingly visible for decades. There are an ever-increasing number of electric and hybrid vehicles on our roads and highways. Countries like the United Kingdom have already pledged to rise the number of electric cars in its towns and cities to 90 percent or more by 2030. There are also multiple car-sharing apps taking hold, and electric scooters and bikes have slowly become a common sight on the streets of larger cities.
Make yourself heard
The shift toward sustainable technology has to be championed by people who consume the goods and services that affect the planet. Awareness is a good place to start, and many people are increasingly taking notice of the damage that has been done.
You can encourage change by asking about EPR and take-back programs. Public interest and input has helped many U.S. states pass laws to encourage recycling across a gamut of products that includes desktop PC, laptops, monitors, printers, and TVs.
Ideas like so-called "cradle-to-grave" product management, where companies manage all stages of a product's life cycle — raw material extraction, materials processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal/recycling — could become a reality. Businesses respond to consumers, so your voice can play a part.
If enough consumers signal a desire for change, then in the future, every company will need to care about environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) and sustainable technology, no matter their industry. Here's to all of us doing our part to ensure a brighter, greener future.