Comment: Consultant Matthew Cockerill, who helped design the Fairphone, argues that companies like Apple need to embrace circular economy principles if they are to truly rise to the challenges of e-waste and resource scarcity
The growing e-waste problem, raw materials scarcity and global heating is driving new legislation in the consumer electronics industry.
The UK government recently introduced so-called “right to repair” legislation in the form of the Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Regulations 2021. This legally requires manufacturers of large electrical appliances like TVs, washing machines and refrigerators to make spare parts available for up to 10 years, to come with repair manuals, and be designed in such a way that they can be dismantled using readily available tools.
In 2022 the EU is due to introduce similar regulations to cover smaller appliances such as vacuum cleaners, smartphones, tablets and laptops through the designing mobile phones and tablets to be sustainable – ecodesign legislation.
As design and business leaders, we must not dismiss these policies simply as new standards to meet as part of the cost of maintaining business as usual. Rather, we should see this as an opportunity to start reimagining how our products are made in the first place, and our relationships with customers and users.
Despite the fact many leading brands are beginning to make circular commitments, e-waste is still set to increase by 40% by 2030
In 2019, 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was produced globally. And, despite the fact that many leading brands such as Apple are beginning to make commitments to right to repair, recycling and carbon neutrality, e-waste is still set to increase by 40% by 2030 (according to the UN). The existing linear system in which our products are conceived, developed, manufactured, shipped and sold only encourages their premature replacement, fuelling this growing crisis.
Of course, we have to work on how to deliver spare parts for 10 years in a sustainable and economic way now. This alone requires an enormous amount of effort. It's something outlier businesses have been thinking about for years. Back in 2014, I helped Fairphone, a small Dutch B Corp, design the world's first modular smartphone: a phone with longevity and ethics in the supply chain in mind; as simple to repair as changing the batteries in a child's toy.
Five years after the launch of the Fairphone 2, it has had to stop selling the spare parts that would enable continued repair. Fairphone's CEO, Eva Gouwens, recently highlighted the problem, saying that “ensuring the availability of spare parts becomes an increasingly delicate balancing act once the manufacturing of the phone stops. Ideally, we'd sell infinite spare parts to our customers for as long as they are needed while also ensuring we didn't make one single module too many to prevent excess e-waste. Although we do our very best to find a balance between these two objectives and keep devices going as long as possible ... stocking spare parts becomes more complicated once a device is no longer in production.”
If businesses simply look to respond to new legislation within this current linear system, we are missing the signals of what will be needed in the future, ceding advantage to those business that have more imagination and vision and can move faster to uncover new opportunities through disruption. So how might we think more radically about incorporating repair, and even upgrade, into the creation of our products?
Take the example of the 2021 iMac, one of the latest products from Apple, which recently established a goal to make every one of its products carbon neutral by 2030 and to incorporate more recycled materials into each of them.
Right now, we can hope to have the parts and ability to repair this product into 2031 (although by then its performance will surely be uncompetitive). So, rather than the Apple design team now turning to focus on the design of the next generation of iMac, might they start thinking about being able to welcome back this generation repeatedly, perhaps in 2026 and again in 2031?
Should they consider how the 2021 iMac might be remanufactured not only for continued service, but also more advanced performance – refinishing old parts and replacing others when their performance is not competitive? All of this could perhaps be done through local micro factories, optimised for efficiency and scale.
If we think in terms of trans-generational products, we may be able to reduce the materials and energy consumed in making them
If we started thinking about our products as a never-ending stream of new generations and think in terms of trans-generational products, we may be able to reduce the materials and energy consumed in making and using our products.
And by helping customers keep our products for longer, we may also be able to establish the kind of recurring revenue relationship with users that today’s digital product companies have. This might encourage us to focus not on the sale of more stuff, but the continued delivery of more value to retain our existing customers and acquire new ones.
Of course, this would require radical rethinking of our processes and supply chains. And at this stage it is an idea, not a definitive solution. But as designers and business leaders we have to think and move faster today in the face of unpredictable disruption.
We need to not only to do the right thing for people and the planet, but to enable the companies that we work for to take competitive advantage of the opportunities ahead.
Matthew Cockerill is an independent strategic design consultant dedicated to bringing imagination and vision to the development of future digital products and connected hardware. Matthew has solved design challenges for some of the world’s best brands, agencies and ambitious scale-ups. www.matthew-cockerill.com
circular economy Fairphone e-waste sustainable design Apple Net Zero Ecodesign