How innovation in design and packaging can drive sustainability

woman using laptop
(Image credit: Lenovo)

Sustainability in tech has never been more important, as technology becomes ever more central to the way we live our lives. Internet traffic has multiplied more than 20-fold since 2010, with the number of people using the internet doubling worldwide. The environmental costs of the technology we use are real and measurable, with the world now producing 50 million tons of e-waste per year, weighing more than all the commercial airliners ever built. For technology companies, this means accepting shared responsibility for the environmental impact of products, both in terms of the electricity they consume, and the e-waste they generate. Business leaders in the sector must pay attention to several aspects of products, from their design to their packaging, to drive sustainability in the coming years.

Improving the sustainability of a product has several aspects, and it is key for technology leaders to take a holistic view of the impacts of a product. It’s not just about reducing energy consumption, although this is important, with data centers alone thought to account for up to 1.5% of global electricity use. Business leaders also need to focus on eliminating materials of concern and taking sustainability and circularity into account when developing products, right down to how materials are assembled into products to better facilitate recycling and reuse, considering things like avoiding glue and which screws are used.

Most companies are still at the very start of their journey when it comes to recycling and reusing products: just one-fifth of e-waste is currently recycled, according to UN statistics. The key is to think about every stage of a product’s life cycle. From what materials is it made, and could these be improved? What packaging will be used for shipment, and could this be more sustainable? What happens to the product at the end of its life, and could it be reused or recycled?

Mary Jacques

Executive Director for Global ESG and Regulatory Compliance at Lenovo.

Sustainable design

To truly create a sustainable product, business leaders need to look at the full journey of the product, paying attention to everything from the emissions across the product's entire lifecycle including the extraction of raw materials and product manufacturing, through to the end of life. This requires attention to detail and a lot of data. Products such as laptops need to be designed with not just their use, but also their end of life in mind. This can be achieved, for example, by ensuring that they can be disassembled using common tools, and as few steps as possible so they can be dismantled more easily. That also applies to how dissimilar materials are attached, which if not done right can make it harder for a product to be broken down and recycled.

The key is to think about all of this at the design stage. Technological solutions have changed supply chains and materials, allowing organisations to use products and parts as raw materials for manufacturing in a way that simply was not possible a decade ago. This offers technology companies a unique opportunity to take an overview of how their products are designed, how they are used, and how they can be reused.

Sustainable packaging

The demand for sustainable packaging comes directly from consumers, with research by McKinsey suggesting that 60% of American consumers would actually pay more for a product that ships in sustainable packaging. For the technology industry as a whole, there is opportunity for big wins in packaging sustainability, from simply reducing the amount of packaging used to ship products, to expanding the use of bulk packaging and reusable solutions. Using recycled and recyclable materials such as post-consumer and closed-loop recycled plastics is also a key part of the recipe. Companies can also minimize resource use by thinking carefully about shipping, particularly when it comes to enterprise customers: using integrated shipping methods can greatly reduce the emissions impact of products.

For business leaders, working with organizations such as the Circular Economy Partnership to help assess an organization's circular economy opportunity and impacts. In the packaging area, innovative materials such as bamboo also offer technology organizations new ways to curb the plastic waste and the emissions resulting from packaging.

Sustainable innovation

In today’s economy, no company works alone, and creating better ways to produce, ship, manage and recycle technology requires business leaders to work closely with suppliers and partners. Every part of the product’s lifecycle matters, from adoption of sustainable marine and sustainable aviation fuels for shipping through to bulk packaging.

The natural inventiveness of the technology sector will come into play here. Technologies such as liquid-cooled servers will be increasingly important in driving more energy efficient computing going forward, enabling the next generation of supercomputers. In the consumer space, innovations in materials and energy consumption will continue, with materials such as post-consumer recycled plastics increasingly important, and the devices of the future built from the ground up to be dismantled, reused, recycled in a circular economy. Moving beyond the ‘make, use, destroy’ of the linear economy and towards circular approaches such as ‘design, use, return’ is central here.

A sustainable future

The demand for sustainability in technology is coming directly from consumers, as well as from investors and regulators around the world. That’s why forward-thinking business leaders in the technology sector need to listen. Organizations must urgently engage with the challenges and opportunities of sustainability in tech.

The way the sector operates is changing, with carbon and circularity rising to the top of the agenda. The products of the future will be designed with sustainability in mind, taking an overview of the product’s whole journey from design to recycling, refurbishment and reuse. Business leaders who embrace this challenge have a real opportunity to change not just the way they work, but the world around them.

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Mary Jacques is Executive Director for Global ESG and Regulatory Compliance at Lenovo.