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Durable and circular for more a sustainable mobile device strategy

By Rob Bamforth

Consumerisation of mobile technology has had many benefits. It has driven down the prices of devices, improved the user experience to the benefit of non-technical users. Plus, awareness and crucially acceptance, of mobile devices, has soared. All of this might seem good for the business, but there is a significant drawback. Consumer attitudes to technology can lead to a throwaway culture, with the obvious impact on wastage. This is not sustainable.

Mobile technology uses precious materials which are becoming scare, expensive to find or politically harder to gain access. Devices also include hazardous waste materials and lots of energy is consumed during production. No surprise that governments are increasingly introducing legislation to decrease waste, lower carbon emissions and penalise polluters.

This is being felt by organisations already, and will have further impact in future as regulations tighten. A much larger direct effect of throwaway technology is the disruptive impact on business processes. This has commercial and not just environmental consequences. Low cost consumer devices might seem simple and cheap to replace, but device failures and unexpected changes affect and interrupt the business process.

Durability

While few working environments are really ‘hazardous’, they can be unpredictable and unforgiving if devices are mishandled. So, a better approach is to make mobile device design fit for purpose and sufficiently durable. This means considering not only the device itself, but also the peripherals, accessories and software that will be used with it over its life.

More durable ‘whole life’ design should ensure devices can be maintained in the field. It could also take into account that devices should be compatible over several generations with replaceable components such as batteries and other ecosystem elements such as printers, scanners, cases etc. This would keep costs down and address some of the environmental concerns about wastage from replacing items that still work but have been made obsolete because of changes to the core device.

Whole life design would also offer better support for business continuity where workers rely on mobile devices.  If devices are not sufficiently durable there is always the risk of something breaking. Failure of any single element of the system causes downtime, aborted processes and user frustration.

Circular economics

A different economic model, which takes the whole life approach, has been suggested from the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This followed the “cradle to cradle” concepts established by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. It has at its core the term ‘circular economy’, and its approach is to replace the current largely linear approach of ‘take, make and dispose’ with one in which resources circulate at high value, avoiding or reducing the need for new resources.

There are many environmental benefits to a more circular economy and a ‘circular’ or sustainable approach to mobile devices – from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, relieving pressure on raw materials and energy consumption. Such circularity could also be directly beneficial to businesses and the mobile workforce:

  • Durable design. Products are built to last and survive the day to day knocks and challenges of an active working environment. Products are increasingly built for energy efficiency with simpler in-field replaceable components e.g. Batteries.
  • Sustainable Supply Chain. Products are designed for in-field upgrade and re-use at end of life. This provides opportunities for remanufacturing and refurbishment across the supply chain.
  • Recycling and Recovery. Manufacturers operate comprehensive warranties and take-back programmes at the device end of life, making it easy to return and responsibly recycle hardware.
  • Product life extension. Manufacturers are able to extending the product life through software-upgrades and firmware updates. This allows for long-term compatibility with peripherals and accessories to ensure all elements of the mobile device ecosystem remain in active use as long as possible.

The key principal is that while a more circular approach offers environmental benefits, it also provides benefits to the business; direct cost savings in the total cost of ownership of devices, and indirect savings when looking at the reduction of disruption to the mobile business process. This approach to mobile device durability is further explored, with guidelines for how to build a sustainable mobile device strategy, “All mobile, still working, becoming sustainable”.

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