Apple and Samsung headed in wrong direction for sustainable product design

17 Oct 2017

Image: Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock

Greenpeace warns that planned obsolescence as a design feature is ultimately harming the environment.

Worldwide e-waste volumes are expected to surpass 65m metric tonnes in 2017 and planned obsolescence in popular smartphones that are hard to repair is accelerating the replacement cycle.

That’s according to the Guide to Greener Electronics 2017 report by Greenpeace, which evaluated the world’s top electronics brands on the sustainable manufacturing and design of IT products. The report ranked companies based on transparency, commitment, performance and advocacy in reduction of greenhouse gases through renewable energy, use of recycled materials and elimination of hazardous chemicals.

‘Tech companies claim to be at the forefront of innovation but their supply chains are stuck in the Industrial Age’

The average grade across the 17 companies evaluated in the Greenpeace guide was a D+, demonstrating that the sector as a whole has work to do to resolve supply chain impacts and improve product design.

Fairphone, based in the Netherlands, scored best overall with a B, followed by Apple with a B-. Dell and HP follow with a C+ while 11 companies, including Samsung, Huawei and Amazon, fall in the D and F range.

Despite its central position as both the largest manufacturer of smartphones and one of the largest suppliers of displays, Samsung’s manufacturing system relies heavily on fossil fuels. The company used more than 16,000GWh of energy in 2016, with just 1pc coming from renewables.

Demand for consumer electronics continues to climb, with nearly 2bn devices sold in 2016 alone. This drives demand for both finite mined materials and dirty energy.

Meanwhile, e-waste is growing, due in part to the short lifespans of devices. The UN has estimated that e-waste globally will surpass 65m tonnes in 2017 – enough to bury San Francisco at a depth of 14ft.

Planned obsolescence is harming the environment

“Tech companies claim to be at the forefront of innovation but their supply chains are stuck in the Industrial Age,” said Gary Cook, senior IT campaigner at Greenpeace USA.

“We know they can change. Rather than fuelling climate change, IT companies need to show the way forward, just like Google and Apple have done with data centres run on renewables.”

‘The current model cannot be maintained’

The report found that Apple, Microsoft and Samsung are among the companies moving in the wrong direction on sustainable product design, as many of their latest products are difficult to repair or upgrade. HP, Dell and Fairphone are the notable exceptions to this trend, producing a growing number of products that are repairable and upgradable.

Up to 80pc of the carbon footprint of electronic devices occurs during manufacturing.

While Google, Apple and other internet companies are making progress transitioning their data centres to renewable energy, nearly all of the companies in the guide have yet to address the rapidly growing carbon footprint and dependence on dirty energy in their supply chains.

Apple is the only company thus far that has committed to 100pc renewable power for its supply chain. Most companies publish little information on their suppliers, keeping the environmental footprint of their supply chain hidden from view. Of the 17 companies evaluated in the guide, less than one-third publish a basic list of suppliers.

There is also a lack of transparency and monitoring of workplace chemicals. To protect worker health and safety, Greenpeace said all companies need to identify and eliminate hazardous chemicals used in the production of their products, and improve worker health and safety due diligence.

The report found that Apple, Dell, Google, HP and Microsoft are the only companies in the guide that publish information on their substances that must be restricted in the manufacturing of their devices, including known hazards benzene, n-hexane and toluene.

Greenpeace is challenging the IT sector to take responsibility for its rapidly increasing footprint on the planet by shifting supply chains to be renewably powered, reducing the cycle of constant consumption of more minerals and other resources by designing longer-lasting products, and detoxing their products and supply chains with alternatives to hazardous chemicals.

“It is clear the impacts of the linear take-make-waste business model employed by device manufacturers extend beyond the concerns of e-waste,” Cook said.

“We need to see greater ambition, more transparency and follow-through from companies to address the environmental impacts of their enormous supply chains.

“The current model cannot be maintained.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years