Sustainability Moves Beyond Repairability and Recycling

MWC Highlights: Innovations and Shift Towards Sustainability
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The Mobile World Congress serves as the catwalk for showcasing the latest and most advanced mobile devices and technologies. Brands offering smartphones, tablets, wearables, PCs, smart home, mixed reality, and more, brought forward the best-in-class products to highlight their latest innovation and offer a hint into the future of technology.

However, the technological landscape has changed significantly in recent years. Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious, prompting the brands to reevaluate their strategies to align with more sustainable practices.

While sustainability wasn’t prominently featured at the show, it was a recurring topic in most conversations. This year, we witnessed brands moving beyond the traditional approach of simply incorporating recycled materials and reducing carbon footprints. Instead, they are now planning, designing, and manufacturing devices with sustainability at the core.

Over the past few years, manufacturers have invested in key initiatives to make their products more sustainable. Some of the key approaches are:

  • Recycled Materials: The majority of manufacturers are increasing the percentage of recycled components in their products, ranging from packaging to the chassis of the devices.
  • Device Reparability: This involves making spare parts available and improving the design of their products to facilitate easier repairs.
  • Energy Efficiency: Device manufacturers are actively working on reducing power consumption, by employing machine learning algorithms to efficiently allocate the right amount of processing power.
  • Extend Devices’ Lifespan: Manufacturers are extending the OS support, offering trade-in programs, and promoting the second life of their products.

Among the smartphone makers, brands like Fairphone have introduced modular smartphones to the market, emphasizing ethical sourcing, fair labor practices, and the environmental impact of their products. PC makers have also been pushing the bar over the years. Examples include:

  • Acer’s Vero National Geographics Edition laptop is made of post-consumer recycled plastic.
  • HP’s Ocean-Bound Plastics offers laptops and notebooks made of plastic collected from the oceans.
  • Lenovo’s commitment to recycled plastics, incorporating post-industrial recycled content plastic and recycled metals into its products.
  • Dell’s Concept Luna is a proof-of-concept developed with Intel to design laptops in a way that makes components more accessible, replaceable, and reusable.
  • Apple’s usage of recycled aluminum and materials. The Mac laptops use 100% recycled aluminum in the enclosures and cases of most products.

Most brands are clearly positioning themselves as green choices in the PC market. The strategy seems to be shifting from proof-of-concepts around modularity, reparability, and the inclusion of recycled materials, to designing products in a way that allows for easy component replacement. This approach is driven by the understanding that designing products with repairability at the core, using features like easy-to-remove screws instead of extensive gluing, makes repairs more feasible. Modern PCs are well known for complicated designs that make them harder to repair when they stop working, forcing the user to buy a new one.

One of the most interesting announcements at MWC was the partnership between iFixit and Lenovo to expand PC repairability. iFixit is renowned for its repair resources and product teardowns. The company advocates the right-to-repair movement, which has come into legislation in the European Union. Last year iFixit partnered with HMD to make spare components available for HMD smartphones and this year expanded into new collaborations in the PC space.

Lenovo and iFixit collaborated to co-design the ThinkPad T14 Gen 5 and T16 Gen 3, making them significantly easier to repair. Starting with a rear cover, more accessible screws, an easy-to-repair keyboard, reinforced clips, a direct battery connector, open-DIMM slots, and swappable port modules were incorporated – all practical and easy to replace. Almost everything can be repaired or replaced, but what is important in this announcement is the fact that iFixit helped Lenovo with the design of the laptops to ensure that all these parts can easily be repaired and replaced.

The complexity of accessing the interior of PCs and replacing components has been a significant challenge for users. Lenovo and iFixit address this concern by providing information about each component through a QR code for users to obtain proper information. The only components that cannot be easily replaced are the motherboard and most of the ports.

The upcoming availability of the new ThinkPad machines in April this year indicates a shift from the conceptual phase to the real implementation of sustainable practices at the core of the business.

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Francisco Jeronimo is VP for Data and Analytics at IDC Europe. Based in London, he leads the research that covers mobile devices, personal computing devices and emerging technology trends across Europe. His team delivers data on personal computers, tablets, smartphones, wearables, smart home and augmented reality and virtual reality, and provides in-depth analysis of the strategies and performance of the key industry players.