Ethical Electronics

Three strategies for building hardware sustainably.

Jan 31, 2018 · 8 min read

Last fall, Heather Corcoran, Kickstarter’s Design and Tech Lead for Europe, organized a series of panel discussions with East London makerspace Machines Room focused on helping creators make positive social and environmental impact in their work.

As a follow-up, we asked Andrew Sleigh, co-founder of Maker Assembly and host of the podcast Looking Sideways, to reflect on one of these panel topics: ethical electronics. Here, he takes a look at makers and startups that are forging a new approach to designing products that account for the growing problem of electronic waste.

The Transparent Speaker’s component parts are designed to be replaced and reused — Image: People People

By Andrew Sleigh

The proliferation of smartphones and other connected devices has changed the way we communicate, gather information, and move through the world. But the opportunities created by this rapid hardware innovation are accompanied by a daunting problem: unprecedented amounts of waste. We buy and throw away more electronics than ever, with consequences that extend well beyond those products’ increasingly short life cycles.

The manufacture of electronic products uses resources at alarming volumes. According to Friends of the Earth (PDF), the production of “a single smartphone, for example, requires 18 square meters of land and nearly 13,000 litres of water.” And when we tire of them, the planet feels the impact again. We’re generating more waste than ever before (e-waste doubled between 2009 and 2014), and disposing of much of it illegally (up to 90%, according to the UN). But increasingly designers and engineers are looking to improve this, making products that are environmentally sustainable and improve customers’ lives, while respecting those of the people who manufacture them.

Some of these problems can seem too big to tackle. But designers at hardware startups, and makers launching new products on a platform like Kickstarter, have more influence than you might think. Those at large tech companies typically have little say in fundamental decisions about how, for example, minerals used in their components are extracted. They might have limited power to make their products easy to repair or disassemble. But, as Matthew Cockerill, one of the designers of Fairphone, a modular smartphone, says, “if you’re a startup, you’ve actually potentially got a lot of power to influence how things will change in the future.”

Here are three strategies for taking an ethical approach to designing and building electronic products:

Your business model — the way you make money — is one of these foundational decisions. In some cases, established companies are hobbled by success. They’re still around because they’ve figured out a model that makes money. But those models emerged around problems they were trying to solve 10, 50, or 100 years ago. Startups have the advantage of building a business around a new problem; one that is urgent today and relevant to the future. You might, for example, be well-positioned to take advantage of trends in consumer behaviour, regulation, or rising resource costs.

So play to your advantage. Don’t replicate models and structures of incumbents that cause problems in the world. Build new models that solve them.

Kano’s Powerup Kit and Lightboard — Image: Kano

The makers of Kano, the DIY computer kit based on Raspberry Pi, wanted to build a platform that could be hacked and extended over its life, not thrown away every time a new model was developed. So when a new version of the core Raspberry Pi board came out, “obsoleting” the first version of the Kano kit, they created a Powerup Kit, to give a new life to the older models:

“The idea was simple — a new, faster Pi had come out and we wanted you to be able to make art, games, music, and apps on Kano OS with more speed. But we didn’t want you to abandon your Pi 1. At Kano, we’re about reuse and remixing, and we didn’t think those powerful little boards should end up in the trash heap.”

By extending the life of products your customers already have, you can make them more valuable. Alternatively, can you or make customers’ lives easier by giving them the benefit they want, without the responsibility of buying, maintaining, and disposing of a physical product at all?

Some established companies are willing to try new business models. For example, rather than selling light bulbs, Philips is experimenting with selling light as a service. Philips retains ownership of — and responsibility for — the physical products, so they have a direct incentive to make them efficient. And as regulations change to make manufacturers more responsible for the material consequences of their products, such an arrangement makes it economically viable to design products that might be more expensive upfront, but are easier to repair, disassemble at their end-of-life, or use more sustainable materials.

For smart devices that offer a cloud service or software connected to a physical product, the opportunity is even greater. Much of their value is in the software, whether on-device, or “in the cloud,” so a service upgrade effectively refreshes the product without any physical replacement, and all the waste that goes with it.

The Kickstarter-funded Transparent Speaker can be improved over time, offering new functionality through software updates:

“With wireless connectivity, we can update your product software so that the product improves over time. The first functionality that we are planning to launch is Spotify Connect which means that you can find our speaker super easily in the Spotify app.”

People People’s Transparent Speaker

The Transparent Speaker hardware is designed to be easy to disassemble and repair, but the software is also designed to be upgraded over time, prolonging its life.

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the most effective ways you can have a positive impact (for your customers and the planet) is to make a product good enough that people want to keep using it.

But for electronics products that isn’t always easy. For products hooked up to cloud services, such as home automation devices, it means making sure your cloud service will have a long life; that you have a viable long-term business model.

BERG, the London-based design studio, had an early Internet of Things hit in 2013 with their Little Printer, which could print out weather, news, and social media feeds on rolls of receipt paper. But the company was forced to shut down in 2014 after failing to find a viable business model that could support their cloud services.

It also means thinking about service and spares for hardware; making replacement parts available and affordable (as Fairphone does), as well as making the devices themselves repairable or upgradeable where possible.

And when the product does reach the end of its life for the original customer, or for the original use case, it means thinking about who else could use it, what other value it could have, and how you can help owners make that transition. That can be as simple as making it easy to resell or give away, as Apple does by showing customers how to securely wipe devices before passing them on.

When discussing the impact of the production and consumption of stuff, blame is often shifted from one party to the other. Manufacturers say they are responding to consumer demand; activists (and ad agencies) claim that demand is stimulated by advertising. It’s a frustrating game in which neither player wants to make the first move. Consumer demand may feel like an unstoppable force, but the truth is that our expectations — the things we value as a culture — change significantly over time. From cosmetics to clothing, we see brands successfully changing consumer expectations and moving ideas from the fringes to the mainstream.

Fairphone is a smartphone designed to be repairable, upgradeable, and long-lasting. It uses materials sourced with impact in mind, for example: electronic components made using “conflict-free minerals.” The goal of the project is not to sell everyone a Fairphone, but rather to make every phone — and every other device — fair. By making a phone using ethical practices, they hope to stimulate consumer demand for more ethical electronics, and to demonstrate to other manufacturers that such an approach is not just possible, but financially viable.

Workers at a conflict-free tungsten mine in Rwanda — Image: Fairphone

By repositioning what we think of as desirable characteristics in a phone, it also exemplifies another approach to moving culture. A large driver for the upgrade cycle in electronics is the desire for the shiny and new — not necessarily the incremental functional improvements. These kinds of subjective, emotional, decisions are guided by our perceptions of value; and much of that value is intangible: the price of the bottle of wine; the brand name on the painkiller; the shape of the breakfast cereal. These factors are well within the domain of product designers — or even packaging or brand designers — within the world of technology. As the Swiss watch industry has shown, by repositioning the role of a technology, even a functionally obsolete one such as a mechanical watch movement, intangible value can be created, that changes perceptions of a product, and the culture that surrounds it. Fairphone aims to make durability, repairability, and longevity desirable characteristics in a phone. To value patina over a lack of blemishes.

Telling this story is not simple; translating technical decisions into a story that consumers can grasp — and ideally, share — is a craft. Matthew Cockerill talks about the ‘café moment’ the Fairphone team targeted right from the beginning of the project:

“Early on the team started talking about the ‘café moment’, when the owner might meet friends, put their FP2 on the table prompting discussion and facilitating storytelling around the issues important to Fairphone. This became a key reference point through the process to ensure the design delivered on this moment.”

It was a design decision; one made a by a small hardware startup; a team of designers who wanted to make a positive impact, and had the freedom to do it. If you’re designing a new product, you have the power to make these choices too.

Ethical Electronics panel at Machines Room — Image: Machines Room

This essay draws on ideas shared during a panel discussion at Machines Room by Janet Gunter (Restart Project), Charlie Bruce (Beeline), Matthew Cockerill (Swift Creatives), and Nat Hunter (Machines Room).

To discover more projects that are taking a sustainable approach to manufacturing, explore Kickstarter’s “go green” tag.

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