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The Elements of Sustainable Design in the Consumer Electronics Industry

Discover how companies can incorporate environmentally friendly practices into the entire electronics life cycle: A Q&A with UL sustainability expert Catherine Sheehy.

Catherine Sheehy poses reflectively for her picture.

December 15, 2019

Designing, sourcing and manufacturing sustainable products not only speaks to the efficiencies and integrity of a company’s supply chain, it also speaks to the commitment a company has made to environmental stewardship. But, what does sustainable design mean as it relates to the consumer electronics industry?

Inside UL spoke with Catherine Sheehy, global lead of sustainability partnerships for UL's Environment and Sustainability, to discover how companies can incorporate environmentally friendly practices into the entire electronics lifecycle.

[Inside UL] Why is it important for companies to integrate sustainable design into their business practices?

[Catherine Sheehy] When we look at what research says about the megatrends of resource and scarcity, we discover that humans are using more resources than Earth can replenish in a year 1.75 times more than our planet’s regenerative capacity. Deforestation and certain extraction operations are depleting our natural assets at an unprecedented rate.

There’s now an even greater urgency related to these megatrends, but it’s not one company’s problems to solve. It’s something that we need to work collaboratively to address and improve upon. Events such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show allows us to highlight the problems and look for innovative solutions in one location. Hopefully, consumer electronics companies will be inspired to further improve the sustainability of their business practices and their commitment to change.

[Inside UL] What role does the consumer electronics industry play in the environment?

[Catherine Sheehy] People love their electronics, and that’s a good thing, except that we also love owning the latest version of a device or gadget. The United Nations estimates only 20% of the world’s 50 million tons of electronic and electrical waste is formally recycled each year.

Precious metals, plastics and glass are literally being thrown away and deposited in dumps or incinerated. But, when manufacturers start to design for the entire life cycle of a consumer electronics product, they not only conserve resources through recycling and repurposing but they also start to design out toxic materials and plan for end-of-life obsolescence.

[Inside UL] You work closely with brands from all over the world on their sustainability practices, what are some examples of innovative sustainable design?

[Catherine Sheehy] Brands are doing a lot to adopt a wide range of sustainable design strategies into their businesses, with many consumer electronics companies moving into the role of leaders in environmental innovation. For example, some brands are rethinking the benefit of including accessories such as the free charger or set of earbuds with each new device.

Other brands are innovating by incorporating alternative materials with lower environmental impacts into product packaging. One consumer electronics manufacturer now uses biodegradable foam made from agricultural waste and mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus, to protect product shipments.

Reclamation of conflict minerals is another example of industry leadership. Conflict minerals include tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, also known as 3TG. Consumer electronics brands have stepped up their commitment to upholding human rights and, in addition to reclaiming these valuable materials from discarded products, brands are often working with third-party auditors to help reduce the introduction of conflict minerals into their supply chains.

Moves to reduce product and packaging weight is also a common strategy used by the consumer electronics industry. Some brands have eliminated in-box hardcopy documentation in their products, choosing instead to place them online. Another example is providing the product as a service rather than a physical thing to be touched. Licensed software products are delivered to customers through cloud computing.

[Inside UL] Wow, so sustainable design refers to more than the materials and components used in the manufacture of the product?

[Catherine Sheehy] Yes, of course! Sustainable design includes everything from designing out the amount of toxic materials used to produce a product to reducing a product’s energy consumption or making a product more easily repairable through the use of standard screws, snaps and enabling the use of uniform tools in repair -- screwdrivers, hex keys and so much more.

You can see how we broadly define sustainable design by reviewing a sustainability standard, such as UL 110, Standard for Sustainability for Mobile Phones.

These standards are designed to help reduce adverse environmental and social impacts and cover multiple attribute sustainability criteria based on the life cycle stages of consumer electronics. Materials, energy use, end-of-life management, packaging, corporate practices and operations are the factors commonly considered in standards. These strategies and more play a huge role in sustainable product design and positively benefit the environment as well.

[Inside UL] Sounds complex, how do companies prioritize which strategies to use?

[Catherine Sheehy] Decision trees can help brands decide where to focus their energies and what strategies result in win-win outcomes where the customer benefits alongside lower environmental impacts. They can create their decision tree by looking overall at their product and product families’ footprints across multiple attributes to come up with solutions that address system-wide problems.

Companies are also increasingly seeing that educating their employees about the importance of sustainability, and teaching them how to integrate sustainability thinking into their work, as critical to the success of their efforts. When people feel like sustainability is part of their job, it not only makes it easier to integrate these strategies across the company but employees feel empowered to identify new innovative sustainability solutions as well.