The quest for sustainable consumer electronics: It’s not easy being green

Companies like Amazon, Google and Razer are all trying to make more sustainable products, but executives admit that there's still a lot of work to be done.

A mass of discarded electronics at a recycling plant.

As companies are working toward a greener future, they're also learning the hard way that cleaning up an industry focused on yearly upgrade cycles and cheap, disposable gadgets is more difficult than it seems.

Photo: Zoran Milich/Getty Images

For Razer, it all started with the pandemic. Business as usual had ground to a halt, and the gaming hardware maker quickly repurposed one of its Chinese factories to manufacture protective masks to address the global PPE shortage. The success of those efforts emboldened executives to think bigger. "We did a lot of soul searching, and we wanted to do something more," said the company's chief of staff, Patricia Liu. "We said: OK, what else can we do to make an impact?"

The company had been taking some steps in becoming more sustainable in the past, but the global health crisis, combined with an ever-more apparent climate emergency, brought it all home. Thus began a company-wide effort to embrace sustainability, reduce the company's carbon footprint, make its products greener and encourage its customers to get involved as well. "We have been doing this sustainability thing even before it became fashionable," Liu said. "But [now], it is with a lot more urgency as well as a lot more intent. From the board level all the way to the R&D teams, the operational teams."

In March, the company published a manifesto of sorts to outline its plans to go green, complete with a roadmap to switch to renewable energy, become carbon neutral and use recycled or recyclable materials in all of its products. Razer also began selling a stuffed animal version of its snake logo to raise money for the planting of roughly half a million trees, and released a limited edition apparel line made from reclaimed ocean plastics. "Whatever we can do, the aim is to actually do it," Liu said.

Razer is not alone in making those commitments. Over the past two years, a number of major consumer electronics makers have committed to cleaning up their acts and producing gadgets in a more sustainable fashion. And while the industry may have made vague promises in the past, most of those plans now have timelines that call for significant improvements over the next few years.

But as companies are working toward a greener future, they're also learning the hard way that cleaning up an industry focused on yearly upgrade cycles and cheap, disposable gadgets is more difficult than it seems. Not only does it require some serious engineering to find materials capable of replacing the plastics the industry has been using for decades, embracing sustainability could also force companies to make devices that last longer and are a lot more repairable. It may require true scientific breakthroughs, new regulatory frameworks and even completely different business models and revenue streams.

It all starts with data

One of the first steps for companies looking to make greener consumer electronics has been to crunch the numbers. "We are working hard on [having] a very objective and scientific way of measuring our carbon footprint," Liu said. "We want to trace the carbon footprint of our products from cradle to grave, so to speak."

Razer wants to use that data to create labels for its products that communicate the carbon footprint of each device, something that Liu compared to calorie labels. "It is inevitable there will be a carbon footprint from our products," she said. By being transparent about it, the company not only wants to highlight its own progress, but also encourage people to practice responsible consumption habits.

That's a sentiment shared by Google hardware director of sustainability Anna Meegan, whose company began issuing detailed environmental impact reports for its devices in 2020. "It is by far one of the most powerful tools we have on the climate side," Meegan said. The fact sheets are meant to educate consumers, but gathering the data has also helped her organization rethink how some of those products are made. "We learn where the hot spots are, where the opportunities to really make changes are," she said.

Especially on the climate side, those impact points vary widely from product to product. "For a phone, most of the carbon footprint is in the manufacturing phase," Meegan said.

"It's a lot of metal and integrated circuit chips and everything else. The amount of electricity it uses to charge over the course of the year is relatively small." That's very different from a Nest speaker, for instance, which is plugged into the wall, and is constantly keeping its far-field microphone powered to instantly react to commands for Google's voice assistant. "Our opportunities are different, in terms of what we focus on," Meegan said.

Google's environmental report for its Nest Audio speaker estimates that daily use will result in about 40% of the device's overall carbon footprint, which is calculated to be about 65 kilograms of CO2 over four years of average use. The document also details all of the materials that went into the manufacturing of the device (the speaker includes a 217-gram magnet), as well as the amount of plastics used in the packaging (just 4%).

It's a lot of data, spread out across six pages, and Meegan readily admitted that it likely won't affect many people's purchasing decisions. "I'm not sure the general public spends a lot of time looking at that," she said. "But from my perspective, it's not only useful internally, but it is a kind of accountability that we can share externally. We're going to hold ourselves accountable to drive improvements where we can."

Clean energy for every smart speaker

People in the U.S. are expected to buy 154 million new phones this year, according to a recent estimate by the Consumer Technology Association. The industry association also expects sales of at least 100 million smart home devices, 88 million wireless earbuds, 76 million laptops, 45 million TVs and 19 million game consoles in the U.S. alone this year.

The total amount of resources needed to manufacture all these new gadgets is hard to gauge, but moves by manufacturers to detail the environmental impact of their devices give us some clues. Google for instance estimates that the production of its Pixel 5 phone results in the emission of 67 kilograms of CO2; the production of the company's less powerful Pixel 4a leads to the emission of 33 kilograms of CO2. Even if all of the phones sold in the U.S. this year had the Pixel 4a's more climate-friendly carbon footprint, it would still amount to a total of 5 million tons of CO2 — 20% more than what the entire country of Iceland is emitting per year.

"We're going to hold ourselves accountable to drive improvements where we can."

And this doesn't even account for anything that happens after a device leaves the factory. "We found that more than half of our carbon footprint comes from when the devices are in use in customers' homes," said Rachel Praetorius, who leads sustainability for Amazon's devices business, a role that had her crunch numbers on the climate impact of the company's consumer hardware.

Amazon had already made commitments to reach a net-zero carbon footprint by 2040, and to switch to 100% of renewable energy for its own operations by 2025. Armed with the new data, Praetorius and her team pushed to go further. "We thought: If we can use renewable energy to run our business operations, can we expand that to address that electricity use by our devices in customers' homes, to purchase renewable energy on behalf of our customers?"

In 2020, the ecommerce giant became the first consumer electronics company to commit to offset the energy used by its devices in people's homes in such a way. "We're building new wind and solar farms around the world to produce clean energy equivalent to the electricity used by all Amazon devices," Praetorius said. "We started with our Echo devices in the fall, so we are 100% matching our Echo devices at this point."

Packaging was easy, now comes the hard part

Amazon also began rolling out a low-power mode for new and existing devices to reduce everyday energy usage, and the company has put out a series of additional commitments to act more sustainably. Among these: Amazon pledged to use recyclable materials in all of its device packaging by 2023, and began using 100% recycled fabric in all of its devices, as well as recycled aluminum in its Echo and FireTV devices, last year.

One of the challenges has been figuring out which materials to embrace for future device generations. "Materials that sound more sustainable aren't always more sustainable," Praetorius said. "We have to be really careful about picking the materials that truly have a lower carbon footprint, and not just pick something that customers are going to say: 'Oh, cool, it's biodegradable. It must be better.' That's not always true."

Google's hardware team has been tackling some very similar issues. The company originally committed to using recycled materials in all of its consumer electronics products starting next year, but already hit that goal in 2020. Google also plans to eliminate all plastics from its packaging by 2025, and use recycled or renewable content in at least half of the plastic used in its products by the same time. "We are focused on developing circular materials," said Google design director Isabelle Olsson. "A strong investment in recycled resins, recycled textiles, recycled metals, low VOC coatings, etc."

As a smaller company, Razer has set slightly more conservative goals, including a commitment to use recycled or recyclable materials for all its products by 2030. Part of the challenge is that the company depends on the active involvement of materials suppliers and contract manufacturers to actually build green products. With $1.2 billion in total revenue in 2020, it just doesn't have the same muscle as companies like Google.

Still, Razer is trying, according to Liu. "We work with our vendors. We work with our R&D teams to look at materials that are suitable, and it's actually more challenging to source recycled plastics." The company has made some progress getting its hands on potential materials and is currently testing them, with hopes to introduce products with recycled plastics soon.

All of this has been very much a learning process for the folks at Razer. "It will get progressively more difficult," Liu admitted. "Packaging is much easier. The plastics for keyboards, for headsets, for a mouse: That actually involves a lot more engineering."

And others have learned this lesson as well. "There are things that can be done more quickly, and things that haven't been invented yet," Praetorius said. "Balancing performance with recycled content, it takes a lot of work. You can't degrade the performance of a product such that it cracks, it breaks more often. That's a terrible sustainability trade-off."

The more you deconstruct the product, the harder it gets to make it green: That's one reason most of the industry's efforts have thus far focused on the packaging, the fabrics and the cases of individual products, while very little has been done about the innards that actually make our gadgets work. Chipsets, circuit boards and the like are resource-intensive to make, hard to dispose of, and pretty much impossible to replace at this point.

"It's not to say that it's easy to make the [non-electronic] materials more sustainable," Meegan said. "That in and of itself is a career's worth of work for many of us. But it is fair to say we have fewer solutions right now for the very technical components in the devices themselves."

"It is a real challenge," she added. "And we're hoping that smart people around the world will spend time thinking about this."

For more on this topic, check out part two of the quest for sustainable consumer electronics, where we talk to a scientist doing just that, and explore whether the consumer electronics industry also needs to change the way it builds products and makes money to become truly green.

Correction: This story was updated Aug. 18, 2021, to clarify that 100% recycled aluminum is used in Echo and FireTV devices.

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