Upcycling Consumer Electronics

Many industries are riding a green wave at the moment--not nearly enough, but more and more vertical markets are looking into sustainability to attract more customers while lessening their impact on the environment. Consumer electronics is one market that has gotten a lot of attention in the past six months. As the number of computers, mobiles and other devices shipped worldwide continues to rise, major players in tech are looking for ways to be more green (the recent Greener Gadgets event in New York City being one emerging venue to focus attention on the issue--some notable entries in the design competition are here). Doing so, however, means significant changes in everything from the materials devices are made of to how they consume power.

Nokia has taken steps to raise its profile in this area, and has recently shown an number of demos of mobile devices made from upcycled materials. It released the 3110 Evolve at CES, which is made in part from recycled materials, and is now showing off the Remade, a non-working concept made from recycled aluminum, rubber and various other parts, as well as using electronics that would have a smaller environmental impact in production. The Remade looks attractive, and appears to show that sleek, stylish and sustainable can be blended successfully. Granted, it still requires energy and materials to produce these devices, and they will probably end up in a landfill at some point anyway, but it might at least compel buyers to switch to a more sustainable consumption channel than they currently use.

More interesting to us, however, is the emergence of a potential upcycling industry at street level in other parts of the world than where repair and reuse cultures now exist as cottage industries at the moment. Nokia and others are trying to learn from the street to make it possible to extend the life of a device. Others are looking at allowing consumers to customize their own handsets down to the component level, potentially encouraging longer lifecycles as well. While creating ways to produce a more earth-friendly device is an important step, moving from profiting from a planned obsolescence/frequent upgrade economic model to one where hardware lifecycles can be extended is going to be even more critical. As resources become more costly both for producers and consumers, usability will not only mean ease of use, but economics of ownership as well.

For now, making sustainable behavior easier for consumers by making it attractive, convenient and easy is moving things in a positive direction.