What Is Sustainable Technology?

While sustainable technology might sound like a contradiction at first, the movement towards eco-friendly technology could be the solution we need to transition away from an unsustainable consumer culture that has become intertwined with the modern-day tech industry.

Electronics like smartphones, TVs, appliances, computers, and laptops are quick to break down and costly to repair. In other words, they are designed for the dump. And our smartphones are the worst culprit! Research shows that the average American uses their smartphone for only twelve months before purchasing a new one. In fact, smartphones have a shorter lifespan than any other tech product on the market.

What is sustainable technology? 

There are many different sustainable technology definitions out there. But in general, sustainable technology is an umbrella term that encompasses one (or both) of the following:

  1. Technology designed to mitigate an already existing environmental issue
  2. Technology that has been created with sustainability principles in mind

Oftentimes, the space between these two elements of sustainable technology can get a little fuzzy and in the best cases, they overlap. But more often than not, it can be tough to satisfy both requirements. The batteries in electric vehicles for example, are notorious for having a negative impact on the environment since they are composed of lithium, nickel, and cobalt – all of which are finite resources.

Today, we are going to focus on eco-friendly technology that has been created with sustainability in mind – from production to disposal. We will first discuss what we consider to be sustainable tech and why we should care. Next, we will look at some sustainable technology examples and what brands we should be on the lookout for when purchasing more sustainable technology products (like a new iPhone). Lastly, we will explore the future of green technology and how we can use the tech we already own in a more sustainable way!

Why should we consider sustainable technology?

When purchasing eco-friendly and ethical electronics, it's important to look at the associated environmental impacts throughout the entire life span of that product (including design, production, shipping, usage, and finally…disposal). This is called life cycle analysis (or LCA). Let’s explore what the environmental life cycle of a cell phone might look like as an example.

Production

Conflict Minerals and Material Sourcing

Metals used to build the hardware of our electronics like tantalum and tin are sometimes mined in developing nations, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the extraction of the metal could be used to finance armed conflict groups tied to human rights violations.

Supply Chains and Labor Exploitation

The tech industry is known to be riddled with labor exploitation. Apple, a tech mega-giant, was once heavily criticized for the harsh conditions faced by its employees after some facilities were found to be using underage labor.

Consumption

Transportation

Shipping tech products around the world also comes with its own carbon footprint. In 2021, greenhouse gas emissions from maritime shipping alone came in at 833 million metric tons of carbon – up 5% from the previous year. 

Data Centers

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 ludicrous amounts of energy. In fact, some experts predict that data centers around the world will account for 10% of all global electricity usage by 2030 if left unchecked.

Disposal

Electronic Waste (e-waste)

Once sent to a landfill, these smartphones 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. According to the United Nations, "the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) a year, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made. Only 20% of this 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.

What are examples of sustainable technology?

Now, I know it can be confusing to decipher all this information while trying to make a more informed tech purchase. So, let’s look at some sustainable technology examples to search for when buying a new tech product.

Certifications

A good first step when searching for more eco-friendly technology products is to look at the company you are considering buying from and if they hold any credible environmental certifications. For example, TCO Certified and Fair Trade are both great sustainability certifications for IT products to look out for. But be careful with this one, companies will sometimes use misleading eco-labeling and greenwashing practices to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying eco-friendly technology when this isn’t the full story.

Transparency

Next, we can find out if the company we are considering purchasing from offers transparent reporting on their scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. Generally, the more reporting and transparency the better. Scope 1 emissions cover all greenhouse gas emissions produced by a companies’ own facilities. While scope 2 emissions are the electricity use of the company. Lastly, scope 3 emissions cover all other indirect emissions a company might produce. Mega tech companies Apple and Google both report their scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions.

Repair and Return Policies

If you can easily repair your tech devices without hassle, chances are they will last longer! Try and look for companies that offer these kinds of services and products. For example, Modular phones are made so that the user can easily repair any problems or broken parts themselves.

How is technology used in sustainability?

Developments in technology certainly haven’t been all bad for sustainability. Tech advancements have helped other sectors of sustainability flourish! Here are some of my favorite examples below:

Fashion

  1.  Fabrics made from innovative, more eco-friendly materials like food waste.
  2. We have seen a rise in online thrift stores as people seek to lessen their impact and save some money.

Transportation

  1. Video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Meet allow us to meet with colleagues from all over the world – reducing the need for work travel!
  2. Electric cars and hybrid vehicles have become increasingly reliable and affordable, allowing us to travel without hefty carbon emissions.

Food

  1. Organic online food stores have also become more popular.

Energy and Infrastructure

  1. We have found new ways to generate cleaner energy from renewable sources like solar and wind power.
  2. Household appliances are also becoming more energy-efficient and eco-friendly (like Eco kettles!).

Education

  1. More people are spreading the word through all sorts of different online mediums! I love watching zero waste documentaries.

There are so many other examples out there of how technology has helped to propel the sustainability movement forward!

What is the future of green technology?

So, where do we go from here? What is the future of sustainable technology?

First, we design better sustainable technology products. Extending the lifespan of our tech products will be one of the most important steps in reducing their impact on the climate. One motivation for companies to design their tech products to last longer is the introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) and product take-back legislation.

Instead of placing the burden to handle waste on the consumer, with EPR and take-back laws, the producer, importers, or brand owners take on some or all of the responsibility to recycle their products. As of 2017, 25 of the United States have passed a form of e-waste take-back recycling laws, although they mostly apply to desktops, laptops, and monitors, with some laws also applying to printers and TVs.

This is similar to cradle-to-grave product management. This refers to a company managing all stages of a product’s life: raw material extraction, materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, disposal, or recycling.

In turn, this kind of legislation will encourage tech producers/manufacturers to design not for the dump, but so their products last for the long haul.

Circular Economy Illustration.Pin

How can we use technology in a more sustainable way?

The best course of action to use technology in a more sustainable way is first and foremost to not buy it. However, this isn’t always realistic in the modern world we live in today. And until the deep-rooted issues in the tech industry (as mentioned above) are solved, the consumers (that means us!) can only do so much. 

In the meantime, we have some tips to help you buy, use, and dispose of your tech more sustainably!

Do Your Research When You Buy

Some brands hold up better than others when it comes to policies around the production, consumption, and disposal of their products. Google and Sony are much better than brands like Blackberry or Samsung when it comes to sourcing conflict minerals. While Huawei holds up much better for upholding workers rights and toxic chemical management. Apple is generally good for all three.

Buy Second Hand or Resell Your Old Electronics

Buying a second-hand device on Facebook Marketplace, Amazon, OfferUp is much more affordable than buying new. And reselling your old device can give it second life (make sure before you get rid of any device you wipe all your data). Some companies like Beagle Brain and Decluttr will even buy your broken electronics! At The Eco Hub, we have tons of other tips and resources to help you thrift shop like a pro

Pick Eco-Friendly Laptop Accessories

How you store, charge, and transport your device can help your devices last longer. So, protect your device with an eco-friendly phone case! You can also make eco-friendly purchases that can reduce the carbon footprint of your devices while you are still using them. Try using an eco charger and charging your phone from sunlight or kinetic energy! 

Repair Your Old Devices

If you can, take your phone into your local cell phone repair shop before you decide to dispose of it. Who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised with a quick, affordable fix!

Recycle Your Old Devices

When considering how to get rid of old cell phones, be sure to check with your local municipality’s website for information regarding disposing of e-waste in your area. Some companies like Apple and Best Buy offer take-back programs where they will recycle your old device for you. And if you have a broken cell phone make sure you dispose of it properly.

Spread The Word!

One of the most impactful things you can do to promote green technology is to tell your friends and family about the environmental impacts associated with new tech, and about the benefits of making more informed choices!

Final thoughts on sustainable technology

There is no perfect solution when it comes to integrating sustainable technology into your lifestyle. It’s all about compromise and balance.

And hey, just by trying, you are showing others around you that you care about the planet and convincing others to do the same! That is still a win. If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – sharing is caring 🙂!

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2 thoughts shared

  1. Hey Candice!

    Great piece) I would like to add, that manufacturing is not the only field for sustainable technology. For me, paperless is also sustainable. Let me explain to you the example of the procurement department:

    1. Managers pick the Purchase Requisition Form (On average two sheets) and submit it to the procurement team
    2. Procurement Team processes it and creates Purchase Order (On average also two sheets)
    3. Procurement Team processes invoices (On average one sheet)

    In grand total, we have 5 sheets of paper only from one procedure. On average there are about 10 procurement operations per day – 50 sheets per day, 1000 sheets per month. Sounds scary for sustainability adopters right?)

    Paperless solutions enable businesses to eliminate all procurement documents from the working processes through digital document and digital signature (here is a detailed list of features of it – https://fluix.io/procurement-workflow)