How we are changing the way we measure consumer electronics’ sustainability

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Under the new guidelines, goods lose points if they do not meet a certain improvement criterion.

We soon found that credible information was difficult to find when we began looking into the sustainability of consumer electronics in early 2019.

Which smartphones, tablets, headphones and other products could even be repaired, let alone how long they would last or if they contained recycled materials, was difficult to determine.

The status quo was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” not much. Very few suppliers even had documents with the relevant details when asked. Perhaps less have made them publicly accessible.

In order to bring about change for the better, we started integrating sustainability knowledge alongside product success in all of our standalone consumer technology assessments in early 2020. We looked at repairability, battery life and ease of replacement, lifecycle of software, material design, and trade-in and recycling programs availability.

The intention was to give a more complete image of the product to readers so that they can weigh what is most important to them and make an informed decision.

In order to highlight them before rivals, goods from manufacturers making good strides on one of the sustainability fronts were given bonus points. A prime example of this is the Fairphone 3+: a sensible smartphone which is outstanding for its ease of repair, use of recycled materials, and ethical manufacturing.

The blood of a rock
In the beginning, it was like having blood from a stone to get details from the different product manufacturers. It also turned out, even after weeks of meetings and delays, that they were finally making strides and trying to integrate recycled materials, making the goods more repair-friendly and sustainable. They just didn’t want someone to tell them.

For many producers, doing positive things behind the scenes that are financially sustainable is much less risky than going on record as things shift in the supply chain which may place them in a tough position. Businesses in technology will also rather stay silent than confirm or deny something.

It’s still hard to find the details required to make an educated decision on how sustainable a product really is, but we’re making progress after a year of pressure from the Guardian.

For many years, Apple has been publishing environmental impact evaluations for its core products – disappointingly, it still does not do so for accessories such as AirPods and other high-volume pieces – but now others are following suit. As with Microsoft, Google has recently started publishing similar breakdowns.

Manufacturers rely on recycled products, too. The decision by Google to use recycled materials in all of its goods by 2030 has already contributed to the use of recycled plastics and metals in its phones and speakers, although large quantities of them are used in Amazon’s new Echo speakers.

Many of the best mass-produced goods, such as smartphones, can be better fixed than ever before, even though that entails using specialized tools that eventually compel the maker instead of the owner or a third party to perform the repair.

There are attempts to make them less disposable, even in difficult categories such as wireless earbuds. You can replace the batteries in Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live headphones and they contain recycled plastic.

The neutral policeman becomes the bad cop
But those are just tiny steps, and there’s still a long way to go.

That is why our sustainability ranking criterion will flip from positive to negative beginning in January 2021.

It will lose grades if a product does not reach a certain standard for sustainability progression, meaning that good products will no longer be ranked higher, however poor ones will.

This will inevitably lead, based on 2020 results, to a large number of goods being downgraded by both small and large companies. The Guardian works on a five-star rating scale, so you can expect to see several excellent three- and four-star items in most regions, but not strong in terms of sustainability.

Similarly, items that exist only to be sustainable must also be good for other purposes – if it is from the beginning, it is no longer enough to create a repairable, sustainable appliance.

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