Greener electronics, yes please, but how?

– The complexity of lowering the environmental impact of electronics

Solar panels field at sunset
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You’ll find it fairly easy to buy organic vegetables in your local supermarket or to find eco-cotton t-shirts in your favourite fashion shop. But when it comes to electronic devices, buying green is much more difficult. Electronics designed and produced to be environmentally friendly are few and far between. However, that will change, in the B-2-C as well as in the B-2-B sector.

In August 2019 the 3rd generation of the Fairphone was launched. The Fairphone, developed by a Dutch company and manufactured in Taiwan, is the only mobile phone in the world using Fairtrade certified gold, while the tin and wolfram it needs is sourced in non-conflict zones. It consists of more than 80% recycled materials, and it has a modular design to enable repairing. It even comes with a small screwdriver.

But as green and likeable the Fairphone may be, it is still very much a niche product. So far, less than 200.000 have been produced, a vanishingly small number compared to the millions and millions of conventional smartphones sold each year.

Rising demand for greener electronics

Yet, there is no doubt that, looking forward, products like the Fairphone will attract increasing attention. The demand for electronic devices designed with a lighter environmental footprint is growing, and it comes from several places: from consumers as well as lawmakers, but not least from companies looking for ways to reduce the environmental footprint of their business.

Just consider the long-term impact of what happened on the 11th of March 2020, the day the European Commission launched its Circular Economy Action Plan. Being part of the European Green Deal it aims at making circular products the new norm in the EU. The Circular Economy Action Plan focuses on the sectors that are the most resource intensive and have the highest potential for circularity. Among other things the plan targets electronics and ICT with a “Circular Electronics Initiative” to promote longer product lifetimes through reusability and reparability, as well as upgradeability of components and software to avoid premature obsolescence. Among the initiatives is establishing a new “right to repair”, a common charger solution, reward systems to return old devices, and a new regulatory framework for batteries.

circular electronics light illustration

Aligning business and carbon footprint

Not only legislators like the European Commission, but also a growing number of consumers are demanding electronics products designed and manufactured with a lighter environmental impact in mind. The same goes for businesses. An increasing number of companies are looking for ways to align their business strategies with their carbon footprint strategies.

More and more businesses will be looking much more closely and seriously into how to embrace environmental considerations, maybe even exploring how a stronger green focus could boost their overall competitiveness, open doors to new markets etc.

The complexity of electronics

However, when it comes to electronics and digital solutions, you need to brace yourself for an uncertain journey. Eco-friendliness in electronics development is complex and requires careful consideration. You won’t find many straight answers, and there are numerous dilemmas that need to be articulated openly.

To begin with, let us sum up what exactly a green electronics product should try to achieve:

  • The functionality of the device should – one way or the other – contribute to reducing our environmental impact on the planet.
  • Moreover, the device itself should be designed to last longer, to be easier to repair and consume less energy than similar devices.
  • Also, the manufacturing of the device should affect the environment as little as possible. It should be made out of as few components as possible with as much recycled material as possible.
  • And have end-of-life potential, meaning that the product after its initial intended use could be used in other ways.

Journey just begun

For Data Respons the journey has just begun. As a company delivering R&D engineering services, software and hardware development, and smarter embedded and IoT solutions we are dedicated to aligning our business and sustainability strategies. As a consequence, we are working on reducing our own environmental footprint and have set a goal of becoming carbon neutral in 2025.

Also, we take responsibility for our suppliers. We have established Supplier Conduct Principles, ensuring that business operations are environmentally sound, and we are performing regular due diligence reviews of our suppliers. Our Supplier Conduct Principles include guidelines for our suppliers regarding labour standards, hazardous substances, greenhouse gases, waste treatment, and conflict minerals. On top of that we are exploring how to lower the environmental footprint of our core business – the products and solutions we develop for our customers. We believe that this will increase competitiveness, for us and for our customers alike. However, we can only move forward in close cooperation with our customers, and ultimately it requires re-thinking conventional product development and business strategy.

The third business parameter

In other words, the two well-known parameters in our business – pricing and time-to-market – need to be supplemented with a third parameter: Environmental impact.

With more than 30 years of experience in software and hardware development Data Respons is up to the task, and we are educating key personnel in how increased focus on eco-design and sustainability creates stronger competitiveness. But as mentioned earlier, going green in electronics is a complex issue, and there are no easy answers to handling the challenge. In fact, it is important to be aware of the fact that a number of recent trends in electronics and digital technologies have the potential to put an additional burden on the environment.

Longer lifetime

As an example, if you want to design products that last longer you’ll be going up against a trend that has been gathering momentum over the last 10 to 15 years: The life cycle of electronics is getting shorter and shorter.

While component manufacturers have been shifting their focus from e.g. the vehicle industry to computers and telecom, components used in consumer electronics have become cheaper and cheaper. Thus technology for industrial and other non-consumer use is utilizing components developed for consumer electronics. But as the average lifespan of a smartphone is 2-3 years, components are built to that standard.

To fight that trend, electronics developers and their customers need to work together to achieve stronger diversification between consumer and industrial products. The customer may even have to accept a higher price, although longer operational lifetime would still ensure good Return On Investment.

Tricky energy consumption

Another trend with similar built-in dilemmas is energy consumption. The vision shared by many tech companies is that their technology enables people and business to do more with less. Digitalisation increases efficiency, and that in itself is said to have a positive effect on the environment.

That may very well be correct, but a significant side effect of digitalisation is an increase in energy consumption. Power-hungry server farms pop up everywhere across the globe, and researchers predict that data centres soon will have a bigger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry. Just to pick one example, it is well known that Bitcoin needs vast amounts of computing power. At the height of the Bitcoin speculative frenzy in 2018 the crypto-currency was estimated to produce an annual amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to 1 million transatlantic flights.

Tsunami of data

And there is more to come. Soon a tsunami of data will hit us. It is coming from 5G, high-res video, IoT, surveillance cameras, etc., and these technologies will need enormous amounts of electricity to function. Some researchers predict that by 2025 data centres will consume 20 per cent of the world’s electricity.

So, beyond the catchphrase of achieving sustainability through technology, we’ll be looking at some significant challenges, e.g. that electronics will need a dramatic rise in energy efficiency to make up for that carbon footprint.

Energy-intensive manufacturing

Another thing to consider is, that the energy consumption of a device while operational might not be its most significant environmental impact. Instead, it may be the energy used in manufacturing it.

While conventional consumer products like a refrigerator or a light bulb consume much more energy during their lifetime than consumed in their manufacture, the opposite is true when it comes to state-of-the-art electronic equipment. Manufacturing methods for electronic circuitry are energy-intensive, and the energy required to manufacture these devices is much higher than the energy needed to run them.

Collaboration is needed

These are some of the pressing dilemmas and challenges that need to be addressed when it comes to eco-friendliness in electronics development.

At Data Respons we may be able to provide some of the answers. With our extensive knowledge about components and materials we can advise our customers on how to create a product with reduced environmental footprint. Also, together with our customers and other players in the industry we can influence component manufacturers to increase the lifetime of their products, thus securing longer lifetime for the solutions we develop for our customers.

But on a higher level, these challenges can only be addressed by collaborating. Component manufacturers, software and hardware consultants, and their customers need to find ways to collectively align their environmental strategy and their business strategy.

To quote Fairphone CEO Eva Gouwens in a Youtube video presenting the Fairphone 3:
– I don’t need the best phone in the world. I want the best of the world in my phone.

It is time to get together and talk about how we can combine the ambition of developing the best technology in the world with the ambition of developing the technology that is best for the world.