There isn’t a corporation in the world that isn’t considering its green credentials. Google claims on its search page that it has been carbon neutral since 2007 and everyone from Apple to Xerox put environmental priorities high on their lists of values. How much of this is greenwashing and what are the things they could easily do to change this?
Built in obsolescence has been a thing since before the fifties with American cars defined by their year of manufacture. Mobile phones are the modern equivalent. In 2020, 1387 million smartphones were sold. If only half of these were upgrades, that’s 600 million functional devices going into the kitchen scrap drawer every year. This isn’t a new story, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.
Every one of those devices has a carbon footprint with an estimated 85% of the phone’s impact coming from its manufacture.
However, we are beginning to resist this. The BBC’s Repair Shop and Radio 4’s Dare to Repair are examples of our desire to keep our stuff rather than chucking it and buying anew. These programmes are indicators of an existing trend rather than guiding new behaviour. The austerity decade, along with David Attenborough’s message, may be when the resistance to landfill took off.
The UK government is responding to this new trend with the right to repair legislation introduced in 2021. The intention was to toughen energy efficiency standards and ensure manufacturers provide spare parts with products being reparable in the home. If things go according to plan, we could soon see the return of the travelling washing machine repairer with a van full of tools and spare parts.
Of course, computing devices are different as they need to keep up with the requirements of power hungry software. Software, in turn, takes advantage of increasingly powerful devices. Without this upward spiral we wouldn’t be gaining the advantage of increasing artificial intelligence, big data analysis, augmented reality and all that stuff that is supposed to be improving our lives. But some products don’t show this constant progress.
Your average pair of shoes reached its design pinnacle about 200 years ago and not much has happened since. Winkle pickers, Velcro fasteners and low-impact trainers notwithstanding, a pair of shoes is much the same now as it was before Queen Victoria was born. Yet software developers can’t stop tweaking applications that seem, to the user, to be perfectly functional. Microsoft Office has been good for writing letters and reports since around the time of the millennium and much of what has changed since seems largely superficial. A PowerPoint on a modern computer seems much the same as it did ten years ago.
Yet progress in operating systems such as Windows and MacOS force us to upgrade and consign laptops to scrap. My kitchen drawer isn’t large enough for old laptops, so they have to go to the dump. But last week I managed to install the Chrome operating system on a ten-year-old laptop and it’s doing fine. I’m currently using it for streaming TV, which is impressive considering it would overheat when streaming on Windows 10. Old Laptops and phones do not need to be scrapped if their usage is limited to unchallenging applications. Most of us use our computers for social media and web browsing. Those applications should be fairly unchallenging, web graphics tend to be lower resolution and even video will have a limit to what we can perceive. High definition is in the eye of the beholder and could be the emperor’s new clothes. Utilising thin operating systems would allow these devices to live longer for non-complex uses.
Take the example of a standard printer. I have a 20-year-old Brother laser printer. The cartridge will print about 6000 pages and, since the millennium, I’m on my third or fourth cartridge. Cartridges are freely available and are not too expensive. The printer produces excellent quality prints. It never jams and it even has two paper trays. But I can’t get it to connect to my Windows 10 PC. Theoretically, it should work with Windows 10. The website shows a Windows 10 driver but I can’t figure it out. I’m not an IT specialist but I have done some computer rebuilds going back to the 1990s. This shouldn’t be beyond me… but it is. Modern printers are networked or use Wi-Fi. I’ve bought adapters to convert this printer to a network printer, but the illustrations show screens that come from Windows 95. These people really aren’t trying. All they need to do is issue me with a reliable driver for my printer. It’s almost as though they want me to throw it away! I’d happily pay for a driver written by a legitimate third party if they guaranteed it would work without hassle. There’s a massive business opportunity here.
So it seems printers are much like 200-year-old shoes; they are still functional for the basic things we need them to do. Old word processors are the same.
Last year’s G7 summit in Cornwall was big on green issues with the Mount Recyclemore art installation visible across from their Carbis Bay Hotel. But government initiatives, such as the right to repair, don’t seem to be doing the job. The new legislation doesn’t cover mobile phones and laptops, which we all have to replace every few years.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When I were a lad, my father used to tell me that ‘Big Business’ had developed the everlasting lightbulb but it would never be available because it was in their interest to sell lightbulbs that need replacement. Those awful low energy fluorescent lightbulbs have come and gone since and now we are all installing LEDs. The white light LED didn’t exist in the time of my father, so he couldn’t have known. We pay a great deal more for LED bulbs but they last much longer and use a fraction of the energy. This is an example of a business model that, encouraged by legislation to ban incandescent lightbulbs, has taken the new technology and changed the ecology of lighting. Printers, shoes and social media devices can do this.
My kitchen drawer is groaning with old phones, but I might soon be able to keep tea towels in it again. The last two phones I bought didn’t allow me to replace the battery despite all the old phones in my drawer having replaceable batteries. The mobile phone industry is going backwards. When my current phone dies, I will probably buy a Fairphone. Fairphone are an Amsterdam based phone manufacturer that has been going since 2013 and since then they have produced just four models. Each of their models is reparable by the user, with spare parts available as modules that can be used to repair and even upgrade some older models. If you twist the pins in your charge socket or break the screen, you can take it apart and fit a new one. It will be a lot longer before your Fairphone ends up in Mount Recyclemore.
The car industry has been doing this for 100 years with a significant proportion of their income based on spares. It would be unthinkable if you had to throw away a car every time it needed a new clutch. This is a different business model for the electronics industry in the same way that LED has been for the lightbulb industry.
If we are planning to reach carbon neutral by 2050, wind farms and electric cars might not be the only strategy. Reducing that 85% of carbon emissions that go to manufacture of devices might be a significant part of the calculation. Changing business models to support consumers in keeping their old stuff going, repair shops popping up in vacant high street stores would reduce waste and might generate a few jobs and even go a short way to revitalise a few town centres.