Sustainability Begins at (the Smart) Home

For years now, environmental impact has increasingly influenced consumer behaviors and purchases, from screwing low-energy bulbs into their light fixtures and bathing beneath low flow shower heads to laundering their clothes with energy-efficient washers and dryers. But these measures pale in comparison to the potential sustainability of a smart home. Smart home sustainability may prove to be key in optimizing and protecting our environment, natural resources and quality of life.

Sustainability is a top-of-mind issue for consumers. Globally, nearly eight in 10 consumers say they value sustainability, and over 70% of these respondents would pay, on average, 35% more for eco-friendly solutions. People respond to products with purpose.

of consumers say they value sustainability

How OEMs Can Enhance Smart Home Sustainability

In Jabil's Smart Home Technology Trends Report, a survey of 215 smart home device Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) decision-makers, 95% responded that it’s important to consider the "circular economy" that takes their products from idea through to end-of-life management and reuse. Download the full survey.

smart home OEM decision-makers agree it is important to consider the "circular economy" that takes products from idea through to end-of-life management and reuse

Unfortunately, despite the many benefits, “sustainability” often remains an intangible concept buzzing around the C-suite. It seems exciting, but businesses can be unmotivated or unsure of how to turn it into strategic action. In fact, a Microsoft IoT Signals report shows that only about 30% of businesses that invest in IoT are thinking about sustainability.

But some major IoT players are working to bring sustainability top-of-mind. For example, Amazon has started highlighting sustainable products, awarding a special badge to products that meet sustainability goals. To create its guidelines and select certified products, Amazon partnered with governmental agencies, non-profits and independent laboratories.

That’s a good push in the right direction, but for smart home device OEMs to increase the sustainability of their portfolio, it will take a deliberate strategy. Here’s where to start:

Start with These Three Steps for Sustainable Design

Smart home brands need to consider sustainability an essential criterion for their products – not a nice-to-have. In a panel on the ecological impact of smart homes, Björn Block, IKEA Home Smart’s business area manager, shared that sustainability is one of the five criteria that each of its products must meet. 

Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment with the basic objectives to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimize waste and create healthy, productive environments. Here are three steps to build sustainable smart home devices:

1. Start with Governmental Regulations

For a basic foundation, start with governmental regulations around issues like energy and water conservation. Although legal requirements are the bare minimum standards, these may become more stringent in the future as governments step up to encourage sustainability within their countries. For instance, in May 2020, the European Commission adopted the Circular Economy Action Plan, which seeks to reduce the European Union’s (EU’s) consumption footprint, double its circular material use rate and contribute to economic decarbonization by reducing the EU’s carbon and material footprint. 

2. Appraise the Materials Used in Your Products

In Jabil’s smart home survey, 95% agree that they consider ways to make every new product they produce "smart." The growing number of IoT devices opens up exciting new business models and elevated levels of customer service, but it also makes sustainability in everyday devices more complicated. As Stacey Higginbotham notes in her article Sustainability is the Elephant in the IoT Room, “One of the biggest shifts wrought by the internet of things is that when we put computing into everyday devices, we are adding plastic, metals and any number of components that are difficult to recycle.” 

of smart home OEM decision-makers consider ways to make every new product they produce "smart"

You need to explore ways to reduce materials that are harmful to the environment, such as plastics or other materials that don’t naturally break down. These could even be eliminated completely by replacing them with eco-friendly alternatives. Usable options will vary based on the needs and conditions of your devices or appliances, but long-lasting plastic alternatives include glass, ceramics, stainless steel and cutting-edge bioplastics. Hopefully, the portfolio of options will continue to grow in the future.

3. Focus on Product Durability

In addition to making sure that materials are sustainable (or at least recyclable), they – and the completed product – need to be durable. People trust most of their appliances to last 10-15 years. Hence, appliances with smart capabilities need to be able to far exceed the two-year lifespan of most modern smart devices. 

To give your smart home devices longevity, make sure that the connectivity is embedded in firmware that can give long-lasting value. This will help curb the number of products ending up in landfills. The resale of old, inefficient appliances leads to increases in energy consumption, energy costs and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Measure Sustainable Criteria Throughout Production

Designing for the environment includes assessing your production. The U.S. General Services Administration states that sustainable design principles include the ability to:

  • Optimize site efficiency
  • Minimize non-renewable energy consumption
  • Use environmentally preferable products
  • Protect and conserve water
  • Enhance indoor environmental quality
  • Optimize operational and maintenance practices

Evaluate your manufacturing sites for peak sustainability. There are several steps you can take to maximize your output while minimizing your environmental impact. Perform an energy audit to see where you’re using too much or where you can replace traditional energy with a renewable alternative, such as solar or wind power. 

Similarly, a water audit can also help you pinpoint areas that could be improved through technology, water-saving equipment and sustainability best practices. With a water-efficiency program, you can conserve water and save money on buying, heating, treating and disposing of water.

You can also reduce the amount of waste you produce through additive manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing requires cutting away at raw materials. The unused material is discarded and can be dangerous to the environment. But with 3D printing, you can create only the shapes you need, eliminating the scraps generated from a die-cut process. Plus, additive manufacturing can reduce products’ weight and the number of parts needed, which can help ease the burden on vehicles, subsequently decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the transportation process.

But making a product sustainably doesn’t just refer to environmental considerations; it also encompasses workplace conditions. Trista Bridges, co-author of “Leading Sustainably: The Path to Sustainable Business and How the SDGs Changed Everything,” said that companies should consider sustainability criteria when they launch or enhance an existing product — just like they evaluate market growth, customer demand or the competition. 

“They [companies] need to think: what is the impact of this particular product or service on the environment? What are the social implications?” Bridges explained. “Because sustainability is not just about the natural environment. The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include reduced inequality, zero hunger, infrastructure — all the aspects that are important in creating a sustainable society.”

None of these audits and assessments should be a one-time check off; they should be done regularly to ensure that you are always manufacturing in a way that is efficient and safe for the environment and workers.

Consider Eco-Friendly Distribution and Delivery

Companies also need to consider the environmental impacts of delivery and transportation. Most of an automobile's environmental impact—an estimated 80-90%—is due to fuel consumption and emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases that climate scientists point to as a driver of global warming

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In the future, companies may be avoiding the whole issue by using commercial electric vehicles to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted in the transportation process. As a part of its commitment to The Climate Pledge, Amazon is already undergoing its goal to put a fleet of 10,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2022 and 100,000 by 2030. It is not hard to imagine other companies following suit.

Until then, by reducing the distance that their products have to travel, companies can reduce their negative environmental impact. COVID-19 is already making businesses consider regionalization to reduce supply chain risk. Technologies like additive manufacturing can help smart home companies bring production closer to the end-customer. 

Another basic but key factor is ensuring damage-free delivery. While in transit, packages are exposed to a number of risks: water damage, improper handling and theft, to name a few. In fact, damaged goods make up 20% of ecommerce returns. There are several ways you can protect your products against the hazards of traveling:

  • Ensure that the packaging is the ideal size (i.e., not so big that the product rattles around, potentially causing damage)
  • Fill empty space in the package to avoid scratching
  • Use impact/shock/tilt indicators that will inform you where any damage may have occurred in the shipping process and encourage the package handlers to be more careful
  • Work with trusted carrier or shipping partners; if you’re working with a new partner, do a trial run to assess their ability to deliver products safely

By taking extra steps to ensure that products arrive safely, companies can prevent having to make additional deliveries, thereby cutting reducing their carbon footprint.

Offer Sustainable End-of-Life Solutions

You should also ensure sustainable end-of-life solutions. As I already mentioned, part of this includes using recyclable materials in your products and packaging. But you can also go above and beyond to ensure that your products don’t end up belching toxins and greenhouse gases from a landfill. 

Electronic waste (also known as “e-waste” or “e-scrap”) generation has been increasing annually, with approximately 54 million metric tons produced worldwide in 2019. By 2030, projections show worldwide e-waste generation reaching almost 80 million metric tons

Proper e-waste management gets us as close to a circular economy as we can. An effective process will compress the supply chain to decrease risk and costs while providing full visibility into the final disposition of all materials (especially focus materials) that comply with all laws and regulations worldwide. Throughout this whole operation, electrical and electronic equipment is prepared for maximum reuse or recycling and all other materials are recovered responsibly. Proper e-waste recycling is about diverting materials from landfills and avoiding wasting energy.

The issue is so serious that even some governments are stepping in. For instance, in Germany, recycling is embedded in the culture, due to legal mandates. It’s illegal to dump appliances like washing machines. If you’re caught doing so, you will be charged a hefty fine. However, the government also offers programs that make it easier to recycle. Consequently, the recycling rate in Germany is about 56%, which makes it the leading country in the world when it comes to recycling, a position it has held since 2016.

the average recycling rate in Germany, one of the highest in the world.

In response to the problem, many technology companies are offering e-waste recycling programs, whereby consumers can benefit by sending in their old appliances and products to be properly disposed of or reused. 

Companies like Home Depot and GE have already joined the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program. This initiative works with utilities, retailers, manufacturers, government agencies and others to dispose of old refrigerated appliances using the best environmental practices available — going beyond federal requirements to protect Earth’s climate and ozone layer.

As a partner in the RAD initiative, when people buy a new GE refrigerator, GE offers to take away the old one and responsibly dispose of it free of charge. Approximately 11 million refrigerators are disposed of annually in the U.S., and only a fraction has the insulating foam in their walls and doors recycled, according to the GE website

Improperly disposed appliances can pose a significant environmental threat. When insulating foam blowing agents are released to the environment, they contribute to stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change. Furthermore, refrigerant and other harmful substances may be released to the environment in violation of federal requirements.

The smart home promises many things: ease, safety and comfort. But more valuable than the individual benefits is the collective effect smart homes will have on the earth. The smart home empowers people to make better decisions and become more responsible citizens of the world. With monitoring and automation within a connected ecosystem, people will be able to lower their negative environmental impact as effortlessly as leaving a room. We all need to make a better effort for sustainability. And that could start with the smart home.

Download the 2020 Smart Home Tech Trends Survey Report

Insights on technology adoption, industry opportunities and biggest challenges from over 200 IoT decision-makers at smart home and appliance OEMs.