The definition of sustainability:

The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.

Environmental Science — the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance

Even though there are major global brands like Adidas and Coca-Cola in the global top ten most sustainable corporations, there aren’t any consumer electronics brands like Apple or Samsung. They don’t even make it into the top 50 list. There are so many consumer electronic (CE) products in the world produced with materials like plastic, that the impact on the planet is huge. Also, the rapid pace at which people upgrade and discard tech in a gadget obsessed society has created further problems.

The challenge here is changing the attitudes of consumers and businesses — ensuring increased sustainability is built into the tech dream of constant progress, that real innovation is seen as being smarter about the means and materials of production rather than just the range of features in a device. The Consumer Tech Association earlier this year published its Sustainability Report to coincide with CES, but there is little consumer awareness — let alone understanding — about what needs to be done. A rapidly expanding collection of replaceable consumer products are such a big part of our lives that surely there needs to be more support in the industry for companies and products that are built ecologically, and more done to educate consumers about the consequences of their tech choices; a sustainability rating next to the quality of the camera or processing speed.

At the marketing communications consultancy I founded, T/F/D, we have supported a handful of crowdfunding campaigns for innovative start-ups that have developed either a product using ecological materials or a product that works naturally with your body. One of these is a Japanese wooden audio company called Konohazuk, who successfully crowdfunded their first headphones in Japan and are currently undergoing further R&D for a wider campaign. Konohazuk has engrained sustainability as one of its core values, with the hope of bridging the gap between technology and nature, and its headphones are built from the ground up to be as ecological as possible — which is true innovation in tech.

Sustainability - H3 headphones

The founder of Konohazuk is award-winning Japanese designer, Yuki Iida. According to Yuki: “There is a common misconception that sustainability is ‘difficult’, so people often ignore it — but it doesn’t need to be such a challenge. The development of plastic tech is slowing down but greater effort needs to be made to encourage a more mindful approach.” Yuki in his designs is primarily focused on the use of traditional materials — Japanese beech wood is the main component of the Konohazuk H3 headphones. The wood is locally sourced in Japan as a by-product of forest thinning — the selective removal of trees from overcrowded forests, in order to improve the health and growth of the remaining trees. In this way, the headphones are growing out of the very lifecycle of the forest and technology becomes in harmony with its surroundings.

As an industry, consumer electronics produces more than 40 million tons of waste each year, much of which ends up being illegally dumped or traded in developing countries, creating a whole host of public health and environmental issues.

Another sector that’s worth considering is therefore tech innovation that will actually help create a more sustainable and healthier environment. One such example is the battle to clean up the air of major cities. UK startup CleanSpace is attempting to map the UK’s air pollution, using a portable sensing tag to track exposure to harmful pollutants in real-time. The tag is connected to an app, which analyses and combines the data to that of other users in the UK to create an air pollution map. The app also rewards users for traveling on-foot or by bike, offering them “CleanMiles” that can be exchanged for discounts with CleanSpace partners.

It’s great to see innovations out there like the Konohazuk headphones as well as startups like CleanSpace, but there definitely needs to be more done in educating consumers and driving a greater focus on sustainability by tech companies.

With Google and Facebook accounting for about a third of all time spent on smartphones, and their revenues alongside Apple jumping to $326bn last year, isn’t it time that the big tech giants put more emphasis on and drove greater innovation in sustainability?

Originally published via Medium on the 19th April 2016.