Sustainable Veneer or Reality?

Earth Day is nearly upon us and I was feeling relatively smug. I live in a eco-friendly apartment (for the U.S.), I recycle, and I even support a few environmental groups, such as The Plastic Soup Foundation. All is good in the world.

Or at least it was till I watched the garbage truck pick up the giant bin of recycled cardboard and throw it in the back with the garbage. So, I did what many of us would do: I made another coffee (from an environmentally-sound source, of course) and pretended that I hadn’t just seen the recycling transgression. After all, I had done my bit by carefully removing all the non-carboard packaging and putting it in the appropriate bin, right?

And I pondered the analogy between what I’d just seen and the smartphone world; more precisely, the decision from some OEMs to stop including a charging brick with new phones.

According to NPD’s latest Connected Intelligence Mobile Connectivity Survey, 75% of smartphone owners say that it is at least “somewhat important” for mobile brands to consider sustainability practices with regard to their devices, accessories, and packaging. This number jumps even higher among younger consumers – up to 85% of Millennials and Gen Zers. So that’s good news: perhaps the logic of not including a charging brick makes sense. After all, most of us have at least half a dozen of these devices floating around the home already. Life is good, the planet shall heal.

Except… according to NPD’s Retail Tracking Service, the data is in stark contrast to consumer sentiment. Power charger unit sales increased 44% in Q4 2020, compared to a year ago. Does this mean that if the smartphone manufacturer takes the charging brick out, we simply go out and buy one separately? Apparently so. We want to be seen to be supporting sustainability and yet, in a parallel to my garbage truck experience, the reality is less positive.

Of course, the situation is a little more complex. At a time when charging bricks are being removed, advances in charging technology are driving the purchase behavior: the old USB A connections are being replaced with “C” connections, meaning that the new cable that comes with the smartphone – or other devices – does not work with the old charging brick. But more importantly, the latest generation of chargers provide more power, charging our devices quicker – a key need when some smartphones are hard pressed to make it through an entire day on a single charge.

As such, I can equate the consumer’s desire to drive sustainability with the increased purchase rates for chargers. By separating the two components – phone and charger – we can buy precisely the charger we want, whether it’s a fast charger, a wireless charging base, or no purchase at all if we are content with our current array of charging capabilities. Further, while we are seeing an increase in charger sales now, this will probably settle back down once we have upgraded our charging solutions.

Personally, I’ve already migrated to wireless charging wherever I can and so am content to help drive sustainable behavior. On the other hand, my daughter seems to lose a charging brick a month somehow and she has depleted my hoard of old bricks. But even with this, at least she understands (now) that there is a cost to these devices – both for the wallet and the planet – and perhaps will manage to hold on to them for a little longer.

As for the garbage truck: well, I should probably plant some trees or make another donation to mitigate my guilt. Happy Earth Day!

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