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Sustainable Tech Leadership: Strategies for a Greener Future 

The path to a more sustainable future in tech became clearer just earlier this year when Apple pushed to pass a “right-to-repair” bill in California. Apple’s endorsement of the bill – though not how they have typically approached the conversation –  is a major step forward in the sustainability conversation for technology.  

A green future is at the forefront of the minds of millennials and Gen z’ers, many of whom are now forming the majority of the workforce. At the same time, people everywhere have at some point found themselves caught in the electric energy around a new technology that finds itself in every headline.  

Remember when Bitcoin was first worth $15,000 and it felt like everyone was talking about it? It’s not just the mainstream news that creates a buzz about new technologies, either.  

Popular films have stretched the boundaries of what seems possible.  

Marty McFly opened our eyes to the possibility of time travel in Back to the Future. And while reception to this film was electric, many of us can probably remember the first time watching Neo escape the Matrix.  

Meanwhile, thirty years of the Terminator has given us six movies and a television show in a series that seems all the more relevant than ever as people joke about Skynet and the proliferation of A.I. and tools like ChatGPT.  

While technology seems to continue to grow at an endless pace… one cannot help but wonder how the chase for innovation will affect the environment of the world we live in. Sure – part of this is the coincidence that many of these future-centric films just so happen to have rather bleak, dystopian worlds, with resources wrought to a minimum by the pursuit of production.  

Or, they position a primary plot point around avoiding such an outcome, like in the Avatar series. Regardless, many of us love the idea of the conveniences that come from new advancements in tech, but we also often feel an obligation to ensure a sustainable future forward.  

What’s the sustainable path for tech? 

On a warm July day in 2007, Steve Jobs took the stage to announce the launch of the iPhone. The market was a tenth of the size it is today, with competitors laughing at the idea of a $500 phone. To say Apple got the last laugh is putting it lightly.  

Fast forward to 2023 and the company has found itself selling over half of all smartphones each year. With sales for smartphones at a fever pitch, it’s no wonder why companies like Apple continue to release new iterations of their flagship product every year.  

Yet as the world’s appetite for new technology continues to grow, so does our responsibility to ensure a greener future. With over 1.3 billion smartphones purchased in 2023 alone, FairPlanet estimates that over 41 million tonnes of e-waste is created each year.  

The nature of the cell phone market – in which new models are eagerly purchased and old versions are seen as out of date and discarded – has deeply contributed to that market.  However, the blame should not rest solely on the shoulders of the consumers. Corporations have certainly contributed to that waste. For years, Apple, among many other companies, has rallied against consumers and their right to repair their purchased products.  

Right-to-repair is essentially what it sounds like – when the device you own breaks, you should have the right to fix it. This includes the acquisition of replacement parts, which are sometimes intentionally hard to find.  

Unfortunately, companies like Apple in the past have argued against this. In one instance, they explained that repairing one’s own device was a meaningful step towards embracing “hackers” and other vulnerabilities.

Apple isn’t alone in this. Earlier this year, the BBC reported that John Deere had finally agreed to allow owners of their tractor products to repair their equipment. Decisions like these are not only meaningful steps forward in consumer protection. They also serve as the foundation for effective green strategies.  

Repairing one’s own device or product is measurably more beneficial in reducing e-waste. Additionally, these kinds of repairs have the opportunity to have an exponentially smaller carbon footprint than what can typically be involved in the production, warehousing, shipping, and delivery of brand new products.

In short, companies can become leaders in a sustainable tech future by embracing equipping their consumers with “Right-to-Repair” pathways. This responsibility, however, does not stop only with the right to repair.  

“Planned Obsolescence” is a corporate strategy that harms a greener future. 

Planned obsolescence is essentially the term for devices that are intended to break over time, or at least operate in a reduced capacity. This reduction is the means to incentivize the consumer to purchase the next model of the product.  

A number of companies could be pointed to in this discussion, and in fact, some are named in lawsuits currently active today.  However, despite the brand, consumers experience this obsolescence constantly, from washing machines that “just aren’t made like they’re used to” to the disposable cameras that were commonplace in the early 2000s.  

One common myth on this topic is the light bulb.  In 2014, the light bulb was the central focus of a “light bulb conspiracy” that essentially accused businesses of purposefully shortening the lifespan of bulbs to sell more units.

As one article explained, lightbulbs had been designed to last endlessly… until a group of light bulb  companies got together and agreed to suppress the technology and thus forcing consumers to buy bulbs again and again.  The evidence seemed well-researched, and nearly a decade later, light bulbs continue to be one of the most prominent examples of planned obsolescence.  

However, Technology Connections – a YouTube channel with over 2 million subscribers – debunked this claim.  As they explained, while lightbulbs are not able to last endlessly like some claim was possible in the past, they are far more efficient.  

Efficiency is another important piece of the conversation in sustainable tech. 

Technologies that reduce energy consumption are vital for the future, not only in their use of resources but also in their emissions. Energy-efficient light bulbs of today, for example, use 75% of the energy of incandescent bulbs

In the past, tech has not always paired best price with efficient technology, as less energy-driven products had often required more parts or had more rigorous configurations. This is not the case for today, as businesses have continued to innovate their designs.  

Still, companies often face the tension between pursuing higher revenue and investing in these technologies. This is why it’s never been more important for companies to lead the conversation in sustainable tech.  

Effective sustainable tech leadership may look like the pursuit of long term benefits over short term gains.  

 A real opportunity exists for businesses worldwide to embrace green technology, and some are already doing so as the aforementioned tension becomes less and less divisive.  In this, leaders can develop a foundation for sustainability by:

1) Encouraging consumers with right-to-repair policies, while equipping the repair efforts with accessible parts 
 
2) Developing tech products that serve the customer intentionally, rather than their own bottom line, by avoiding planned obsolescence pitfalls 
 
3) Embracing the innovation and development of efficient tech that is energy-friendly, with a focus on production that minimizes its carbon footprint

People continue to dream about what the future may hold and what next big technology is waiting around the corner. And while we wait for the next futuristic film to imagine what’s possible, we have an obligation to our environment to pursue new technologies both ethically and responsibly. From self-driving cars to robots who can bake your favorite pizza to AI that can have a full conversation with you without you knowing…  As long as we continue to embrace sustainable and eco-friendly technologies, the future of our world is both exciting and bright.  
 

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Blake Binns

Blake is a marketer and consultant based in Northwest Arkansas, the home of Wal-Mart. He is a fan of all things digital and hosts the Good Advice Podcast. He lives with his wife of 10 years, Joy, and together has two kids, Blake and Maylee.

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