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Made to break or built to last?

It is increasingly strategic for businesses to incorporate sustainability into their plans, yet it is increasingly dangerous to commit to sustainability purely for the sake of profitability. With apple recently joining the list of corporate giants to make a bold sustainability statement, we started thinking about sustainability and technology… can we have our iPhone and eat it too?

Ever come across the term “planned obsolescence”? It’s when a product is designed with an 'artificially limited useful life', so it becomes obsolete (unfashionable or no longer functional) after a certain period of time.

In the case of electronic gadgets, this can manifest in 3 main ways:

  1. Constant software updates that display hindsight incompatibility with older models

  2. Unrepairable/irreplaceable hardware – in the case of the iPhone, it is when your battery has reached its lifespan, but you have to replace your entire phone because it is hard for the layperson to dismantle

  3. Perceived obsolescence: advertising new models with marginal feature improvements to stimulate sales

The lines are vague. How do we define “unfashionable”, or “marginal improvements”? Are consumers equally complicit in succumbing to buying the next big thing? While perceived obsolescence is greyer, pushing for constant purchases has been deemed unethical, even by governments, as it deprives consumers of the choice to continue the lifespan of their gadgets.

In 2018, the French government found Apple guilty of planned obsolescence (under French law, this is a crime), and had to pay a $27 million fine. The issue resurfaced again in March this year, when the US government sued Apple for its “batterygate” saga, and as part of the settlement terms, the company allowed US consumers to file a claim. As the Guardian aptly describes, planned obsolescence might be “one of the biggest corporate scandals of the 20th century”, because it’s not just Apple – it’s everywhere.

The issue is also highly intersectional; when Apple makes their latest iOS update incompatible with the iPhone 3, low income communities have to fork out a greater portion of their income to replace them. It is projected that planned obsolescence can cost people a total of up to €50,000 euros during their lifetimes – a crippling cost to those on lower wages. Not to mention how ‘e-waste’ in our landfills, which hits developing countries harder on all fronts when waste is being outsourced.

Thankfully, governments are starting to penalize this phenomenon, but some still wonder if this is enough of a deterrent. $27 million is an amount Apple makes in 3 hours, and claims allowed were capped at $500 million, which is equivalent to about $25 per customer. Policies instead of lawsuits might prove to be better at targeting the roots of the issue rather than the symptoms. Thanks to the European legislation on its Resolution on a longer lifetime for products (2017), individuals can now freely repair their devices with any service provider instead of the manufacturer’s official technical service alone.

Many big corporations are also striving to do better. Just last week, Apple released its carbon neutral plan, promising to become fully carbon neutral by 2030. Promising and holistic, the plan covers the entire supply chain and life cycle of every product. This includes using as much low-carbon and recycled material as possible, lower energy use in its supply chain, using entirely renewable energy in its operations, and investing in carbon-offsetting projects.

What we feel is truly remarkable is Apple’s commitment to restructuring a large portion of their operations model from a linear to circular economy. It is encouraging to witness large corporations like Apple take responsibility for the waste they generate – have you met Daisy, the robot that dismantles old iPhones and repurposes them for new iPhones? Meanwhile, HP and Dell have been leading examples of pro-repair culture tech manufacturers.

There is, of course, still a long way to go before a circular economy can be fully realised. As Right to Repair Campaign Director Nathan Proctor points out, “recycling is only a small part of any solution”. While it may slow down the rate at which landfills are being occupied, it arguably only does so marginally, and still fails to target many other intersectionalities above. Last year, out of 50m tonnes of waste generated globally, only around 20% was officially recycled. Instead, recycling and offsetting may only be seen as “first step and last resort” climate solutions.

So, whose shoulders does the responsibility fall on? The law of demand and supply is a chicken-and-egg story - so the entire farm has a part to play in making a change. Some, like, are more inclined towards changing consumer behaviours by encouraging individuals to repair their own gadgets and participating in slow consumerism. Others, including governments and grassroots initiators , are rallying for more sustainable business practices (see: Right to Repair campaign).

Reebelo, a fellow startup from the Antler incubator, strives to “fill in the gaps that brands can’t, and won’t convey…empowering consumers to consume in a sustainable manner effortlessly”. Co-Founder Fabien kindly shared some views with us on how far companies like Apple should go in reducing e-waste...

‘I think large companies have a role to play in 3 main ways. Using more sustainable production lines, enabling the collection of the devices they put out on the market, and finally, working with certified partners – if not done internally – that will re-market used products in alternative markets, making sure they do not end up in landfill.

That being said, it is easy to put the blame on brands. We love Apple because they create new, amazing products every year and always continue to amaze us. Of course, for Apple and any tech company, the prior focus will always be to launch new, smarter products. These companies won’t try any time soon to change your perception of refurbished products for example. This would go against their own interests, and it is contradictory with their brand DNA. And I don’t think we should be too fast in blaming them for that. A lot of us buy the new iPhone (or equivalent) as soon as it comes out. When we could use our phone for 3, 4, 5 years or more.

That creates a lot of space for companies like us to come in, and try to fill in the gaps, and spread the message that brands can’t, and won’t convey. For us at Reebelo, it’s about convincing people that pre-owned electronic devices are as good as new. In general, our philosophy is to provide solutions which are smarter, more affordable, and yet more sustainable than our traditional ways of consuming. It’s about empowering consumers, and enabling them to consume in a sustainable manner, effortlessly.

We shouldn’t be sitting and waiting for brands to do something, blaming them for e-waste when we as consumers are always keen on buying the latest phones, smart-speakers, gaming consoles etc. Brands exist to create new products, innovate. How they should help then? By helping to build a sustainable ecosystem around them. By providing spare parts to refurbishers. By working with companies that will do what they can’t, like promoting reuse, extending the lifecycle of products, changing consumption habits.’

What do you think? Let us know via the comments!

Who are we? Founded in 2019 in Singapore by co-founders Aziz and Josie, VC and angel-backed, Capture's vision is to make planet-friendly living possible for everyone. We create software to inspire and educate, working to empower both organisations and individuals through the Capture app. You can download the public version of the Capture app via the below links:


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