Earlier this year, tech giant Dell announced an innovative partnership with actress Nikki Reed’s jewellery company, BaYou with Love, which spawned a new line of fine jewellery made using recycled gold from the motherboards of end-of-life Dell computers. The juxtaposition of fine, intricate jewels with old computers has driven media interest and raised the issue and importance of sustainability within the tech sector. ‘The Circular Collection’ has been positioned as an example of circular economy success, but how deep does this move go? Does it really solve the core sustainability concerns facing tech or is it more a decorative move in the right direction?
Dell’s initiative demonstrates the imperative for technology and sustainability to operate hand in hand in the future. Key stakeholders such as investors, regulators and customers increasingly view businesses that are not effectively addressing their most material sustainability issues to be at greater risk of operational inefficiencies, reputational risk and of potentially damaging their brands; the technology sector is no different. However, there are some sustainability issues, such as shifting to a more circular economy, increasing energy efficiency and managing sustainability risks in metal and mining supply chains that are particularly important for businesses that produce electronic equipment.
An important first consideration for tech is around how to make supply chains more ethical. The first question to consider is how to reduce the absolute quantity of virgin materials that need to be sourced, particularly through mining within their supply chains. Secondly, where virgin materials, rather than recycled materials must be used, it is vital that tech companies are able to trace the source of these materials and ensure that high ethical and sustainability standards are being met. While human rights abuses, pollution or using conflict minerals can represent a threat to a tech business’ reputation, there is also the more widespread issue of growing global demand for metals against a finite supply. The infographic above estimates the number of years left before specific metals run out.
Virgin reserves of some metals — such as lead, zinc, silver and gold — may run out at some point in the 2020s, making recovery of materials from electronic products at end of life more and more important.
While recycling is better than landfill or incineration, ideally Dell would be doing more to focus on design for longevity, considering modular, durable and timeless electronic product designs that can be updated without needing to buy a completely new product. Circular business models should also start with encouraging the sharing economy so that fewer products can meet the needs of more people, followed then by maximising the usable life of every product — electronics companies should be designing for longevity rather than designing with obsolescence built in. Apple was recently criticised for slowing down older phones to help them cope with aging lithium batteries. Innovative business models such as 'product as service' are needed to ensure that if a product is disposed of, it can then be reused — for example, rather than selling computers, Dell could lease them and then take them back from customers for refurbishment or recycling when the customer doesn’t want the product anymore.
Design for repair is another key aspect of extending the life of electronic devices — Fairphone is a great example of a modular smartphone that’s designed to allow for hardware updates and repairs to reduce the need to dispose of older phones. Imaging and document solutions companies such as Canon are increasingly designing products — such as its EQ80 range of remanufactured printers — so that they can be taken back and remanufactured at end of life; companies such as Dell could also focus more on the foundational design of their products. In order to recycle any product, it needs to be designed in such a way that the constituent materials can be reclaimed in as high-quality a state as possible. The complexity of electronic equipment and the lack of a more modular design approach to enable ease of disassembly can make effective recycling very challenging.
Ultimately, recycling of electronic equipment should be the last resort and only used to avoid landfill or incineration. There are much wider and more fundamental issues to consider, such as how products are made, how their life can be extended, and the controls and considerations around virgin materials. However, new initiatives such as Dell’s collaboration with Bayou with Love are breaking new ground, challenging what is possible and reminding us of the far wider and deeper sustainability issues facing the tech industry.