A century ago, the only disposable products on the market were small and low-cost, like napkins. But today, it’s standard practice to ditch anything from a two-year-old smartphone to a car with 20’000 miles on the clock. Human activities, from deforestation to greenhouse emissions all stem from the same root cause: our societies demand for more stuff. This throwaway society has been berated for the best part of modern consumerism, but it’s showing no sign of stopping. Every time a new product rolls around, from the idolised September Apple Keynote to the myriad of adverts of redesigned cars driving across an empty mountain road, we obligingly turn to our less-than-5-year-old items in disdain for their archaic designs and sign a contract or lease for the new. Even if in our personal lives we manage to ignore our seemingly inherent need for the latest gadget, the thousands of company-issued equipment that falls into that unattractive gap between retro and new-age will be due for an upgrade. While keeping employees up-to-date with the latest gadgets is conducive to a smooth working environment, not to mention less IT troubleshooting, this little-mentioned culture of in-with-the-new gadgets in business is not conducive to supporting the actual environment. Companies in every sector around the world may be picking up on their much-needed commitments to social and environmental responsibility, but is this reflected when it comes down to in-house equipment?
The products we use every day are now reaching absurdly short lifespans. Apple recently lifted the veil and confirmed what had been suspected all along; that they have been intentionally reducing the speed of older models. And it’s only set to get worse. The phrase ‘things aren’t made like they used to’ rings too true in today’s time of planned obsolescence. The reason why companies are in the situation of upgrading phone contracts within two years, decommissioning cameras within one, and upgrading the company vehicle fleet within five, is because these products aren’t designed for much longer. This technical obsolescence is true of most digital gadgets of any producers, but another major challenge is the style obsolescence. Close-up shots of bevelled edges in the marketing, to subtle product placement, to the perception of success exuded by owning the most recently released gadget, the unsubtle persuasion of these techniques leaves us all but powerless to notice. The ability of these new products to make us faint at the knees is a strange magpie-esque quirk in our make up that is shamelessly exploited by marketing execs. Whatever the reason, this consumption is terrible for the planet, and the attitude bleeds into all other aspects of our culture, from throwaway packaging to single-use materials. The public usually gets the rap for getting rid of tech that’s past a year old, but it’s the companies, spurning thousands of stuff every year, that is exacerbating a large amount of the problem.
Though businesses across every sector are now picking up on the need to start greening up their act by; promoting ride to work schemes; cutting plastic waste; donating a percentage of profits to a remote village in the name of social responsibility; or just contracting a recycling company, the truth is that the underlying business model is creating the conditions that these initiatives are against. Discussing the latest Corporate Social Responsibility campaign on the newest model phone, holding green strategy meetings via a 2018 model computer, and driving to meetings with sustainability consultants in company cars little more than 6 months old, does little to assuage the root cause of environmental damage – excessive consumption. With good deals to buy a literal office-worth of the most recent models, there are few incentives to keep the old. But this is one of the most glaring examples of businesses picking and choosing the more personally comfortable issues at hand: Sure we’ll save a couple acres of rainforest in exchange for a negligible amount of profits, but we can’t have a member of middle management going without the latest mid-range Range Rover.
Such double-standards are exemplified by Apple’s revered Keynote last week. Their latest batch of headline-making, hashtag generating, and barely different iPhones and Apple Watch were ushered in, along with a much less-marketed announcement of their sustainability initiatives. There’s Daisy, their new disassembly-for-recycling robot, the new iPhone XS’s recycled tin logic board, and the fact that all the new phones contain recycled and bio-plastic. They also used the opportunity to flash their 100% renewable credentials that were announced last year. Most notably, though with little coverage, the award-winning company announced that they wanted their products to last for as long as possible. This lesser-headlined statement is groundbreaking, and at odds with many of the ideologies of phone providers and willing consumers everywhere. Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, Lisa Jackson, announced that Apple now strives to design and build durable products and software, which means the latest iOS runs even on the iPhone 5S, now five years old. Jackson said that “keeping iPhones in use” is the best thing for the planet, but it doesn’t change the fact that their very business model produces the world that we’re desperately trying to avoid.
Presumably, despite this gesture of longevity, the next Apple innovation with be on the next contract available for business employees, and the same will go for the upcoming models of iPads, cameras, and cars. Our consumption levels in society are now reaching astronomical heights as technological development continues to grow and defunct even recent models. With continually improving pixel definition, potential 5G connectivity, extended electric vehicle range, or improved efficiency in combustible engines, upgraded products are often lauded for their more efficient capacities, wrapped up in prettier packages. But if the little-used and still functional older models are then tossed aside to the nearest second-hand dealer, recycling, or at worse – landfill site, there is a much-needed revaluation of how much better for the environment the product really is. Though technological capabilities have undoubtedly improved our capacity for out-of-office communications and content creation, there is a question as to whether having the latest equipment versus the previous model actually dramatically enhances work standards. From this level of consumption to the ethically questionable ways things are produced, businesses in manufacturing predominantly create the culture that engenders climate-changing consequences. And it’s businesses outside of that sector that encourage it through their mass purchasing of their wares.
While recycling capabilities for paper, plastic, and glass continue to improve, our fast-moving digital culture is creating a global epidemic of electronic waste that is threatening to get out of hand. A report released at the end of 2017 by the UN revealed that in 2016 there were 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste produced globally, with a steady upwards trajectory. In 2014 it was estimated that for each person on the planet there was 5.8kg produced, by 2016 it was 6.1kg, and by 2021 it’s predicted to reach 6.8kg. This is terrible news for the planet because according to The Global E-waste Monitor report, the ‘improper and unsafe treatment and disposal of e-waste… poses significant risks to the environment and human health.’ The planet is now under the scourge of mountains of digital waste which has become the final resting place for a medley of dangerous materials and chemicals, which serves as a dangerous challenge to the world meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As the employment sector moves into more office and communication industries, ushered in by an increasingly automated manufacturing industry, this will only exacerbate the problem with a whole host of employees being handed company-issued phones, tablets and cameras in addition to their personal digital products.
This is most clearly represented by the unusual position of Scandinavian countries at the top of a bad-for-the-environment league table. For nations that are often heralded for their positive actions towards a cleaner economy, their contribution to the e-waste problem is more than any other. With 28.5kg of digital detritus per person Norway, the country with 98% of its energy coming from emission-free hydropower, was at the top spot for the amount of e-waste produces. Denmark was third, with 24.8kg, The Netherlands with 23.9kg per person was fourth. The UK slotted into second place with a massive 24.9kg, while in comparison, the UAE, with its vast fossil fuel economy, produced just 13.6kg per person. As globalisation takes these markets and consumption habits overseas to nations that look to the Wests consumption culture as ideal, as developing nations emerge higher up on the GDP tables, we will see the effects of consumption explode even further. While is it positive that emerging countries have access to a higher standard of living and electronic communication, we will need far more efficient systems to manage this growing level of digital debris.
Companies can invest in a myriad of schemes to help them decommission issued equipment in a way that is more in keeping with sustainability and social goals. Many businesses already invest in organisations that take and refurbish used technology and sell it on at reduced prices or donate it to charities, NGOs and schools. Other ways are to incentivise employees by offering the opportunity to keep their older models, thereby cutting down the number of duplicate devices. You could even take it old school and consult the dying trade of repairing devices to keep them functioning for longer.
Alternatively, businesses can implement a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy. Today in the UK, 85% of people have their own smartphones, 78% have laptops, and 68% have tablets. And with the rise of mental illnesses thought to be in part caused by our always-on digital spaces, perhaps adding another round of these devices for work is not helping your employees manage the difficulty of a work-life balance. Offering the option of a paid incentive to use their own devices and connect them up to work communications may help keep company e-waste down while helping employees to manage digital fatigue better.
For technology that must be supplied, be it a stray Luddite on the books or a device that needs specific capabilities, businesses can opt to bring the upgrade cycle down a notch by updating technology to the model released one down from the most recent. This will undoubtedly reduce the cost of upgrade season, and help to engender a culture between your employees that the previous round of upgrades is just as impressive as the most recent. Organisations like Back Market are doing just that. Their modern online market of refurbished digital devices aims to ‘make resurrected devices mainstream’ by reintroducing the models of yesteryear that are still brilliantly technologically advanced and capable of (almost) everything this year’s models can do.
Through these equipment mitigation measures, businesses can start to implement an inside-out sustainability policy that actually helps your employees and shareholders recognise the businesses visible changes towards a cleaner economy, rather than just those marketed to consumers. Such in-house adaptations can help to make employees consider alternatives to the consumption habits of their personal lives, and help foster a work environment that aims to work in conjunction with the actual environment.
The glamorous and high-tech advancements of our consumer culture will continue to entice us with clever marketing and sleeker aesthetics, but with a more conscious attitude to the fact that today’s model will become archaic in a matter of years, we can try to break the auto-pilot habit of needing the newest equipment. The introduction of the latest model doesn’t make the previous model any less impressive, attractive or functional, but our consumer culture does. The cumulative effect of businesses taking a step out of this marketing frenzy will help inspire employees and customers alike to do the same and will keep millions of pieces of perfectly good technology from ending up in the ground. Holding on to an iPhone 7 for another year in exchange for a cleaner culture and planet suddenly doesn’t seem too primitive.