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Five Ways to Gift More Sustainable Devices

If you’re planning on gifting devices during the festive season, Hilary Tam looks at how you can make sustainability part of your decision-making
By Hilary Tam, Principal for Sustainability Transformation, AWS
Sustainable Christmas

First, let’s be clear: the most sustainable device is the one you already own.

Most consumer tech is inherently unsustainable, from the rare earth minerals in the chips that power them to the carbon produced during their manufacture. In fact, the manufacturing process typically generates significantly more carbon emissions that post-purchase use, so the longer you hang on to your gadgets, the better.

Historically, though, this hasn’t been made easy. Sealed devices and planned obsolescence have limited consumers’ ability to repair their devices, leading to unrealistic expectations around device lifetimes – and megatonnes of e-waste.

However, there is a growing number of manufacturers that are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. And there’s a growing number of products that are more sustainable by design, whether that’s by improving their efficiency, using less carbon-intensive materials or making it easier to extend the life of the device.

Google, for example, has already achieved its 2022 target to incorporate recycled plastic into all its new hardware. All Nest thermostats use 75% recycled plastic, Nest Audio clocks in at 70% – and the Pixel 5 smartphone is the first ever to be manufactured with 100% recycled aluminum.

So, if you really have to have your gadget fix, what should you look out for? What makes a gadget more sustainable?

1. Look for devices that are easily repairable

A gadget repaired is a gadget saved from landfill. But sealed enclosures, batteries buried beneath sensitive components, warranties that are invalidated by user intervention – or even something as simple as proprietary screws – can incentivize consumers to junk devices prematurely. Mobile phones are some of the worst offenders. But the Arm-based Fairphone has been flying the sustainability flag for a number of years now.

Made with responsibly sourced, conflict-free materials, and equipped with a 5-year warranty, no part of a Fairphone is glued shut. This means it can easily be repaired with a standard screwdriver. According to the company’s 2020 Impact Report, “Using a smartphone for five to seven years (rather than the average of 2.7) can reduce a phone’s related CO2 emissions per year by a whopping 28-40%. That’s why we focus on device longevity, and empower our users to keep their phones for longer.”

Fairphone also focuses on improving working conditions along the supply chain, paying a living wage and working to eradicate child labor.

At the opposite end of the gadget spectrum, SeeSense’s Arm-based bike lights are also built for longevity. The lights come with a two-year warranty, but the company pledge to service lights even outside the warranty period, or upgrade them for a small cost.

SeeSense is working to reduce the plastic used in each iteration of their lights and has switched to recyclable packaging. It also offers customers a discount if they trade in old lights of any brand, which is then donates to charity, planting a tree in their honor.

2. Embrace sustainable materials

Recycled or recyclable materials can help reduce the carbon impact of your tech purchase. (Bonus points if you buy refurbished, which can save you money as well as help reduce e-waste.) Companies such as Amazon and Apple now list the materials breakdown of their products, which makes it easier to check a device’s green credentials.

Some companies were set up with sustainability in mind. Nimble, for example, is a certified B Corporation that balances purpose and profit. Their carbon-neutral products are designed to last, and use sustainable materials – including recycled aluminum, polycarbonate, PET, silicone and paper – as well as ethical suppliers and plastic-free packaging. Each product comes with a pre-paid label to allow customers to send old devices back to a recycling partner for safe, responsible reclamation.

Companies like Nimble are setting the standard for sustainable tech. But buyer, beware: not all ‘sustainable’ materials are equally sustainable. Just because a material is recyclable, for instance, doesn’t mean that anyone actually recycles it. And while the recent trend for using wood in electronic devices may seem like a step in the right direction, it ideally needs to come from sustainably managed forests. Look for certification from organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that wood-based products are helping to take care of the world’s forests.

3. Consider how they’re powered – and think renewable energy

If someone says renewable energy, chances are you think of wind turbines or fields full of solar panels plugged into the national grid. (And switching your household energy supply to a renewable tariff is a great way to reduce the carbon impact of using your tech.) But an increasing number of consumer device manufacturers are also turning to renewable sources of energy – predominantly solar – to boost their products’ eco credentials and reduce their carbon footprint.

In 2020, Garmin launched a range of solar watches with a photovoltaic (PV) display, designed to boost battery life between charges. A graph on the watch face shows incoming solar intensity, but data fans can also connect to the companion app to get granular detail from any day in the watch’s history. While the PV display is not intended to be the sole source of power, Garmin claim it can increase battery life by up to 40 days per charge cycle, depending on the model, mode, and duration and quality of light exposure.

Solar is also the energy of choice for Urbanista Los Angeles, billed as, “the world’s first self-charging wireless headphones powered by Powerfoyle™ solar cell material”. Urbanista claims that the solar cells can convert all forms of light into electrical energy, meaning that the headphones can keep running even indoors, using ambient light as well as sunlight. The headphones also reduce energy consumption through an on-ear detection feature that pauses the audio when the headphones are removed and restarts it when they are replaced.

4. Opt for energy efficiency

Another way to reduce the carbon footprint of your gadget is to make sure you’re buying one of the most energy-efficient. Around the world, there is a number of different schemes that rate the efficiency of devices, appliances and even cars (just in case you’re lucky enough to find one of those in your Christmas stocking). Europe has the European Union energy label, for example, while the US has the Energy Star Certification.

Energy efficiency is one of the ways that Arm supports its partners in achieving their sustainability goals. Our technology is inherently low-power, helping to reduce energy consumption. And we’re continually looking at ways to improve the performance per watt of our IP. The next two generations of our highest-power CPUs, for example, will bring expected performance gains of 30 percent while keeping energy use flat. By driving down energy consumption – and the associated carbon emissions – we can help our partners to reduce the environmental impact of the devices you may receive this season.

Of course, some devices are not only efficient, they also generate efficiencies, saving you money and helping to reduce your carbon footprint in the process. From smart plugs that allow remote switch-off from your smartphone to energy-efficient LED lightbulbs and smart thermostats … they might not be the most glamorous gift, but in terms of cold, hard cash savings, they’re the gift that keeps on giving.

5. Buy refurbished

Once upon a time, anyone looking to gift a device would not even have considered a refurbished item, but a growing awareness of e-waste has shifted their status. They’re now considered an important way to save nearly-new devices from landfill, which has given them more kudos. And there’s no shortage of choice: everything from tablets and laptops to smartphones and headphones are available, often at a fraction of the price of a brand new product.

Be aware, also, that refurbished is not the same as used. Used devices are typically offered for sale without maintenance or repairs, beyond a factory reset. Refurbished items are comparable to the new ones in terms of performance and condition, and undergo a full revision and repair before being offered for sale.

Whatever device you buy, try to ensure it has the potential for longevity. Poor quality or novelty items have a short shelf-life and are more likely to be junked by New Year.

Supporting brands that prioritize sustainability rewards their efforts and helps demonstrate demand. Asking questions about a product’s sustainability also shows that it’s part of your decision-making. While new policies are needed to make sustainable tech the default, consumers’ choices can help shift the needle. Being a mindful shopper has never been more important.

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