If you want them, you can buy eco-friendly versions of whatever you’re looking for. Renewable rugs? Check. Ecofriendly underwear? It’s under there. Planet-friendly foods, furniture, and footwear are everywhere, and that goes double for the consumer electronics space. You can get green headphones, renewable smartphones, and energy sipping laptops that ensure you leave the smallest footprint possible on the environment.
But you don’t really want them, do you? The Global Sustainability Study 2021, conducted by the Simon-Kucher & Partners consultancy, polled over 10,000 people from around the globe. It found that while 85 percent of people indicate that they have shifted their purchase behavior towards being more sustainable in the past five years, just 34 percent are willing to pay more for sustainable products. (It's a start, I suppose.)
To ensure that they're doing the most good, it’s up to manufacturers to ignore the tried and true rules of supply and demand (“give ‘em what they want”) and simply make better products. And for that, we need better nerds.
“So, I’m a geek,” Mark Newton, Samsung’s head of Corporate Sustainability, told me recently. “My background’s in chemistry, I love materials, and I’m really interested in how we can use sustainability as a lens for innovation when it comes to materials.”
In a wide ranging interview ahead of Earth Day this year, Newton detailed a variety of initiatives the company has undertaken to ensure that the products it makes and those you buy are as ecofriendly as possible. Like it or not, your next phone might be a green one.
Reduce: Packaging that saves the forests
The easiest space to innovate in is packaging. Apple made a YouTube-worthy event out of the act of unboxing your phone, and product makers around the globe upped their game to match, with excess plastic wrap, giant cardboard boxes, and more. Ever peeled the plastic film off a new phone or TV and thought to yourself, “why?” Why must that be there? Who’s it helping? And can’t it be eliminated?
Yeah, me too.
“We have a commitment to eliminate single-use plastics in all of our packaging for mobile by 2025 – and we’ve already made some great strides,” Newton said. The company has removed all of the excess plastic bits from the packaging surround the Galaxy S21, he noted, including the bits that used to bind the cords, the tray the phone came in, the wrapper around the charger, and even the charger itself.
“We got down to about, with the S21, 96% elimination of single-use plastics. The only thing that was left is the screen protector. And in [the S22], we still have the screen protector – we haven’t figured out how to get rid of that – but it’s 100% recycled plastic. So it’s a step in the right direction.”
If a part can’t be eliminated, it can certainly be improved. Newton suggested turning that bit of excess into a handy part of the overall experience.
“Who knows, at some point, maybe instead of it being a throw-away film, it’s an actual screen protector that stays with the phone?”
The fiber used in Samsung’s boxes is certified as well, conforming to standards you and I have never heard of (SFI, PEFC, and FSC), which guarantee that the pulp making up the paper making up that box didn’t come from rainforests or the boreal forests or the Amazon. PEFC, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, began in Europe in 1999; today it’s the largest forest certification system in the world, managing 815 million acres of forest around the globe.
Reuse: Putting that old phone to better use
You may have outgrown your old phone, and left it in a drawer in your house. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless: it has accelerometers, a decent screen, a camera, and more processing power than it takes to drive a moon rover. But what exactly can you do with it?
Following an internal competition among the engineering team to figure out the best way to reuse old phones, Samsung partnered with NGOs in Asia and a local university in Korea to augment an outdated phone and reuse it for eye exams. By strapping an old S7 into a holster resembling a radar gun (also made from recycled plastic, of course), the company was able to build a cheap gadget to screen people for preventable eye diseases.
“This is a real problem. There are millions of people that go blind because they simply don’t get screened,” Newton said. While devices to perform such screenings exist, they’re expensive, and therefore out of the reach of local village doctors in much of the world. The Eyelike Fundus Camera, as the company calls it, is part of the Galaxy Upcycling program (opens in new tab), and through it Samsung has provided basic eye care around the globe.
“Aid workers, nonprofits doing a lot of this work … they don’t have the resources to go [buy them].” A pilot program from Samsung has screened thousands of people in Vietnam, he said; it recently expanded to Southeast Asia, Morocco, and Papua New Guinea.
“In Morocco, we lack medical personnel and ophthalmic medical equipment, so I’m optimistic Eyelike will bring huge benefits – especially to patients who live in remote regions,” said optician Mohcine Ait Hida.
Recycle: From fishing nets to phones
“Imagine this much dirtier,” Newton says, holding up a jar containing fine green twists of nylon fishing net. Fishing nets fill the ocean: By some accounts, there’s approximately 2/3 of a million metric tons of fishing line in the ocean already, and salvaging it is near to impossible.
Rather than a vain effort to fish out fishing line, most recycling efforts aim to prevent ocean-bound plastics from making it into the water in the first place. Before my eyes, Newton details the journey a used green fishing line makes from an open-weave to a cell phone part.
“So we clean these things up, and then we essentially mash ‘em up, process ‘em so they can be transported efficiently, and we send these to our processor.” That substance is blended with other materials and extruded into small plastic pellets, which are eventually turned into some of the internal brackets holding together Samsung’s gizmos. Sure, it’s only black plastics; there’s no real way to create the lovely phantom violet, mystic gold, or pink gold colors Samsung’s phones carry, but still, this is progress.
Ocean plastic also goes into the solar remotes that come with some of Samsung’s new TVs, he explained. And while it's only a little bit of the phone, every bit counts, making today's products better for the environment, easier to recycle, and cleaner overall.
Consumers may or may not want to pay more for this stuff, but to to be fair, in that Global Sustainability Study, 85% did indicate they were at least considering it. And younger generations are far more invested in the full lifecycle of a product than their parents, meaning that number will only grow. So your next phone may be gold, or pink, or even phantom violet, but let's hope it's green as well.