TechTalks: Time to break free of the incessant tech upgrade cycle

26 Jul 2022

Straits Times, 26 Jul 2022, Time to break free of the incessant tech upgrade cycle
As more countries transition towards living with Covid, technology companies are seeing a dip in product sales after high demand of the last two years when working and learning from home became the norm. Shareholders are undoubtedly fretting at this gloomy state of affairs because the capitalist growth-at-all-costs model is not going quite according to plan.

Yet this lukewarm climate for technology products may compel a rethink of the classic upgrade cycle that companies and consumers alike have become accustomed to - buy a smartphone or laptop, use it for a few years, jettison it when it turns sluggish and upgrade to an improved model. Rinse and repeat.

As threats of a global recession loom, and concerns about climate change intensify, we cannot assume that technology consumers will slavishly conform to this product upgrade cycle.

Financial prudence may weigh more heavily in their minds and there is data to indicate that smartphone buyers are waiting longer before refreshing their devices. At the same time, consumers who are more environmentally aware, especially Gen Z's, will increasingly factor environmental sustainability into their product acquisition and use.

A 2021 survey of US consumers by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School found that although over two thirds of consumers across all generations are willing to pay more for sustainable products, two thirds of retailers believe that not to be the case. Instead, they assumed that consumers place a far higher premium on brand names.

The study also identified consumers' key motivations for buying sustainable products: around 30 per cent wish to improve the environment, 23 per cent to reduce production waste and 22 per cent to shrink their carbon footprint.

Closer to home, similar consumer trends are also emerging.

A study commissioned by UOB in December 2021 found that half of Gen Z respondents in Asean said they were spending more on sustainable products. For Singapore consumers, a quarter of Gen Z consumers and close to half of millennials expressed hopes for a sustainable future. The survey had polled 3,500 respondents from five Asean countries including 1,000 from Singapore.

Regulation is also keeping pace with such shifts in consumer sentiment.

In June this year, the European Commission mandated that manufacturers of mobile phones, tablets and cameras must equip their devices with a standard USB-C charging port by 2024. The legislation is designed to eradicate waste and make life easier for consumers who would theoretically be able to use one charger for multiple devices.

Currently, we do not even enjoy charger compatibility for products by the same company, let alone across different companies and brands. Furthermore, technology accessories by third parties are often shipped with multiple charger heads to ensure compatibility for consumers across all markets and product genres, thus generating even more waste.

In Singapore too, Parliament passed the Resource Sustainability Act in 2019 with its Extended Producer Responsibility approach that requires technology product manufacturers to collect and treat the e-waste their products generate at end-of-life.

Since technology companies are directly responsible for collecting and treating the e-waste they generate, such regulations will encourage them to invest more strategically in reinventing their products to minimise waste.

Reinvention for sustainability is by no means a pipe dream.

Dutch company Fairphone produces durable smartphones made of recycled or ethically-sourced materials that offer 5G speed, dual-cameras and long battery life. The company also produces an extensive range of spare parts that can be easily replaced by consumers themselves, making maintenance and repairs simple and cost-effective.

With most mainstream smartphones, however, consumers are often held hostage to an all-or-nothing approach, with many devices being difficult to fix or necessitating replacement parts that are tightly controlled by the company. When repairing devices is cumbersome and costly, consumers have little choice but to ditch the entire product even though much of it remains functional.

Environmentally-conscious consumers are contributing to the repair culture as well.

Singapore's RepairKopitiam movement started by the Sustainable Living Lab (SL2) has expanded from public education in the mending of clothes, furniture and appliances to focus on technology products. In partnership with SGTech, SL2 launched eRevival Square in July last year to conduct activities such as infocomm equipment repair and dismantling demonstrations to raise awareness of e-waste. Such ground-up efforts can go a long way towards shaping and influencing consumer attitudes and choices. In time, the buy-and-throw-away or ditch-and-upgrade habit may no longer be the norm.

With ESG (environment, sustainability and governance) becoming a principle all organisations seek to trumpet, it is time for technology companies to pick up the mantle and embark on meaningful product innovation.

Regulatory reforms are afoot and consumer attitudes are fast changing. Rather than incessantly roll out new devices with novel functions to outshine their rivals, technology companies should meet loftier goals and strive to distinguish themselves through sustainability by design.

With the rise of the eco-conscious consumer, it may well translate into sustainable bottom lines too.

Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She is also board director at the Singapore Environment Council.