While details of the new iPhone 12 are starting to leak, the increasingly pressing question is when Apple (and the rest of the industry) is going to make a radical redesign to make its phones more eco-friendly. Sure, the iPhone 12 will have better specs than its predecessors, new features and it will look stunning too. But despite these innovations, it is simply a smartphone like earlier iPhones. The real innovation that is still lacking though, is making it more eco-friendly.
As we were reminded by the World Economic Forum during the Davos 2020 meeting, the e-waste coming from smartphones and other electronics is a big problem—it is the fastest-growing waste stream on our planet. At the same time, in a joint report together with the E-waste Coalition and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, they estimate that the global material value of e-waste amounts to $62.5 billion, which is three times more than the annual output of the world’s silver mines. With such clear need and such great opportunities, I wonder: when will a company like Apple step up its sustainability efforts and start employing a more circular, closed-loop approach to its products and processes by fully recycling them?
The need for more eco-friendly electronics
E-waste is the waste that comes from discarded electronics such as laptops and smartphones. It consists of chemicals, plastics, screens, minerals and other materials that are left behind once an electronic product isn’t used anymore. With the fast growth of electronics, especially of smartphones and other mobile electronics, the urgency of the e-waste problem is clear, both from a climate and an economic perspective. Being the world’s fastest growing waste stream, electronics are a significant source of waste polluting our planet. It is so significant that the UN environment chief even calls it a “tsunami of e-waste.” At the same time, the growing demand for electronics leads to shortages in minerals and other natural resources. This means that the natural resources needed to produce smartphones will be harder and harder to get.
As the reports and institutions referred to above clearly point out, there is an urgent need for electronics’ producers to make their products and processes more eco-friendly. While there is increased awareness of the need for this and while steps are made in various industries, such as fashion, the electronics industry isn’t exactly taking the lead. On the contrary, by using just a tiny fraction of ocean-bound plastics, for example, the HP Elite Dragonfly might already be the world’s most sustainable laptop. Furthermore, as a comparison of the sustainability of brands by rankabrand.org shows, there isn’t a single electronics brand carrying an A-label and just one carrying a B-label (Fairphone). So, there is a long way to go.
Two strategies for reducing e-waste
There are roughly two strategies to deal with e-waste: reducing its production or reusing it in production. The first strategy focuses on extending the lifespan of electronics so that consumers keep them longer. This includes making the products easier to repair, and offer longer support for updating and upgrading their software and hardware. Companies like the Dutch Fairphone and German Shiftphone are adopting this strategy. It is also the direction in which the recent EU‘s Ecodesign Directive points by including a “right to repair” for electronics.
The problem with this first strategy is that it requires a change in consumer behavior. Even though there may be awareness that consuming less and buying products that last longer is good for the environment, current practice is one of quick-turnaround products. Even if their phone would last 5 or 10 years, consumers like to and are used to buying a new one every 2 years. Such behavior isn’t going to change easily, which is why we can expect that Fairphones and Shiftphones will only appeal to a small selective audience.
This makes the second strategy—fully reusing and recycling electronics—the more viable option for making large scale improvements. As long as consumers stick to their current preferences and behaviors, the best thing electronics’ producers can do, is make sure they get their electronics back and fully reuse and recycle them in the production process. In other words, making their business circular.
Both strategies require fundamental changes to the design of the products as well as the production process. They require thinking ahead about the decomposability of the product and how which material is going to be extracted, processed and reused. But since the second strategy doesn’t require consumers to change, it is largely within the power of electronics’s producers to make it happen.
Of course, the call for more eco-friendly products applies to every electronics’ producer and even to every company on this planet. There is a reason though why I single out Apple here. Or actually, there are five reasons:
- They have big pockets. After Saudi Aramco, Apple is the second highest valued company in the world, valued at $1,400 billion. Furthermore, the last few years their annual gross profit was around $100 billion.
- They aspire to influence and create customers and new markets. As the late Steve Jobs said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” This mindset led to Apple’s iconic products and it is this mindset that is needed to make the industry more eco-friendly.
- They control their ecosystem. Whether it is software, hardware or content and whether it is upstream or downstream the value chain, Apple is in full control of everything that happens. This makes it the perfect company for transforming to a circular business.
- They need it to become an industry leader again. While Apple used to be far ahead of its competitors, they no longer are. The advancements they make to their products are currently rather trivial. By embracing circular design and production they could become a true industry leader again.
- They are getting started. As announced in January, Apple has invested in a recycling robot that disassembles the iPhone so that minerals can be recovered and reused. This, Apple says, is part of their plan to become a “closed-loop” manufacturer.
These five reasons make Apple the ideal company for taking the lead in the eco-revolution in electronics. And as the last reason shows, they are getting started to achieve this. However, at the same time, they also take counter-effective measures such as substantially cutting the trade-in price for used iPhones—thereby making it less attractive for consumers to trade-in their iPhone directly with Apple. So, even while there are some initiatives, we are yet to see when Apple is going to fully embrace circular, closed-loop manufacturing. As Davos 2020 makes clear, we should hope they will start doing so sooner than later.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty