SUSTAINABILITY—THE ABILITY TO live, thrive and advance without depleting the planet’s natural resources— has become something of a catchcry for the 21st century. But now it’s imperative the word becomes much more than a slogan or convenient rhetoric.
According to Scientific American, over 200 countries have shaped their environmental policies around limiting the planet’s maximum temperature rise to 1.5 degrees centigrade compared to pre-industrial levels. And yet Earth has already warmed by 1.3 degrees and, while they are only whispering it in private, climate experts collectively believe the target will be overshot in as little as ten years, the publication reports.
A world that warms by two degrees looks a lot different to one that increases by 1.5. There would be more heatwaves, greater rainfall (although less freshwater), lower crop yields and higher sea levels. Such somber predictions make it incumbent on humanity to take meaningful action now, even if some of the suggestions seem a little extreme. The stark reality is the planet needs us to do much more than just talk.
The good news is the hard work needed to overcome sustainability challenges is already underway. Initiatives include greener extraction of raw materials, energy- efficient supply chains, robust financial operations and labor forces that are paid fairly and kept safe. These efforts are positively impacting the ability of countries, communities and companies to adapt their economies.
Since the 1980s the pace of development in the electronics sector has outstripped that of practically any other industry. It has become a leading contributor to the economy of some countries and a major input to total industrial production in many others. And the rate of growth is showing no signs of slowing down; according to analyst Fortune Business Insights, the chip sector alone will expand from $527 billion in 2021 to $1,380 billion in 2029 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.2 percent. In part, this growth is down to an increasing appetite for consumer electronics, but the emergence of the IoT and machine learning (ML) is leading to many new applications that are also boosting semiconductor demand.
Increased accessibility to electronics technology has improved the lives of many, and as it becomes even more environmentally-friendly, modern technology will also improve the health of the planet. New practices are being adopted for material sourcing through processing, manufacture, distribution, retail, repair and recycling.
Growth of electronics technology is making the management of e-waste one of the most important issues. Recycling is key. According to the UN, 20 percent of e-waste is successfully recycled today, and the organization has announced a plan “By 2030 [to] substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, repair, recycling and reuse.”
“There’s a growing focus on supply chain sustainability in electronics and manufacturing, with an emphasis on responsible sourcing of materials and reducing the environmental impact of production,” says Linda Pettersson, Senior Vice President Legal & Compliance, Nordic Semiconductor. “Additionally, there’s a growing trend toward recycling semiconductor materials to reduce waste and conserve resources.”
As befits a global body, the UN is helping drive the international sustainability agenda through its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Created in 2015, SDGs have encouraged organizations to strive to enhance the sustainability of their practices and investments. The 17 SDGs include targets to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation (SDG 6); ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy (SDG 7); and make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG 11). There are also goals to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG 12) and take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (SDG 13), among others.
The goals themselves do not yet form the basis of enforceable legislation or provide economic imperatives for compliance; they do, however, impose specific, measurable and observable targets. And it’s those targets that are motivating industry to get its act together. Companies are spending time and financial resources to enhance sustainability with the SDGs acting as the baseline for their efforts.
While the SDGs are the posterchild for sustainable action there are also regulatory frameworks and commercial dynamics encouraging firms to become greener. A greater emphasis on social responsibilities based on policies that actively promote companies’ social accountability alongside profits, and which make them directly answerable to stakeholders and the public, has created sustainability ratings, new legislation and government incentives for adopting environmentally-friendly practices – or penalty fees for non-sustainable ones.
Challenges remain: “Changing consumer behavior to prioritize sustainability is a significant challenge, as old habits are difficult to break, and there are often financial barriers to adopting sustainable practices,” says Nordic’s Pettersson. But thanks to the efforts of farsighted people, there’s a master plan. And it’s a plan that sees electronic tech not as part of the problem, rather as a major part of the solution.
In addition to enhancing a company’s image, green policies can boost its competitive advantage and strengthen its bottom line. A 2019 survey by U.S. insurance company Aflac found 77 percent of consumers are more willing to purchase from companies with an environmental pledge. According to new NielsenIQ survey data, 46 percent of consumers are looking to brands to take the lead on creating sustainable change, while 93 percent of business leaders believe consumers are likely to hold businesses accountable for their environmental impact, the Environmental Defense Fund claims.
But while an individual company’s action can help towards a sustainable economy, a group of organizations working together can do much more. Industry group the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) is committed to sustainable global supply chains. The alliance has developed a sustainability code of conduct inspired by international standards, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Labor Standards and International Social Accountability Standards. The RBA drives suppliers, partners and customers to meet similar environmental responsibility goals, influencing every part of the process through sustainable practices.
The more than 170 members of the RBA have now also committed to driving sustainable value for workers, the environment and business throughout the global supply chain. Members, including Nordic, are accountable to a Code of Conduct. “For corporations, change begins with enhanced visibility and control of the supply chain itself,” says Pettersson. “RBA members are more likely to require their suppliers, partners and customers to meet similar green goals by following the RBA Code of Conduct, which sets a baseline for all relevant areas including business ethics, diversity, non- discrimination, workers’ rights and privacy.”
As the importance of environmental sustainability grows, organizations are increasingly being mandated to be part of the transformation toward achieving ‘net-zero’—or even carbon negative—objectives. It is working, says analyst ABI Research. The company notes that regulations addressing climate change and environmental impact are influencing greener corporate and product business strategies. For example, the German Supply Chain Act, which came into force in January 2023, and the E.U.’s proposal for Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive are proposing or requiring companies to conduct due diligence on their value chains, while assessing environmental risks such as pollution, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. Furthermore, mandatory climate risk reporting has been introduced in the U.K, the U.S., the E.U., Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore and Switzerland.
Changing how we do business at the corporate level is going to help, and new business models are helping too. The old trend to introduce new products every few years has gone and in the process it has dramatically decreased the volume of e-waste. Sleek new products are designed to last instead of being thrown away after just a few years. One example, reported in The New York Times, is the Fairphone 4 made by an Amsterdam company of the same name. The smartphone has a plastic cover that can be easily removed to expose its internal components. And those components can be replaced in minutes by removing a few ordinary screws.
Other manufacturers are making it easier to fix broken products—meaning trivial faults no longer put expensive devices permanently out of commission—and simplifying disassembly at the end-of-life to aid recycling. It all helps to build a sustainable economy and the smartphone makers are not alone in their good endeavors. New PCs, TVs, tablets and wearables are among the consumer products that now offer longer life and easier recycling.
Manufacturers are embracing a circular economy concept. The concept aids sustainability through strategies based on the five ‘Rs’—reduce, reuse, repair, recycle and restore—and has the potential to contribute to multiple UN SDGs.
According to The Connected Consumer Report 2030, produced by business think tank The Future Laboratory for Vodafone Smart Tech, so-called smart circularity—the circular economy as it relates to connected technology and the IoT—can help the world shift away from linear consumption to an economy where resources are fed back into a closed loop of recycling, reusing and sharing.
By 2025, improved resource productivity could deliver an annual net material cost saving of $600 billion in Europe alone, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent.
To reach these ambitious targets, chip makers and electronic device manufacturers are playing a critical role. Tech products now emphasize reusability, and developers consider recyclability and multi-purpose use in their designs from the beginning.
Consumers can expect new devices to be compatible with several generations of previous technology. This forward and backward integration is cutting down on e-waste and discouraging over-consumption. Meanwhile, tech advances such as over-the-air firmware updates increase end- product longevity, ensuring users don’t have to buy new hardware to access the latest software product features.
The Connected Consumer Report 2030 also notes beyond the electronics design and manufacturing community, IoT technology can also help the whole of society embrace smart circularity with the potential to transform how we view and manage consumption.
Planned obsolescence in all its guises—from contrived durability and repair prevention to software lockouts and batteries that can’t be replaced—is now consigned to history.
While consumers and corporations are changing their habits, protecting the planet and its resources for tomorrow will also need widespread deployment of new technology. The UN already recognizes the transformative power of tech; its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states: “The spread of information and communications technology, and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies, as does scientific and technological innovation across areas as diverse as medicine and energy.” But how exactly to turn that progress, knowledge and innovation towards the sustainability challenge?
The IoT will form a foundation platform for sustainable tech. But first it needs to be fully rolled out and that will incur an energy cost. Will that cost be worth it? A Transforma Insights and 6GWorld report, Sustainability in New and Emerging Technologies In 2030, highlights how building the IoT from now until 2030 will significantly increase global electricity use, and 112 million cubic meters of water will be consumed during the manufacture of IoT-enabled solutions until that time. Hydrocarbons used for the distribution and deployment of IoT solutions will add to the cost.
Yet the Transforma report concludes that the positive environmental impact of IoT applications will make the cost well worth the initial sacrifice. In fact, IoT technology will soon generate enough savings to pay back the energy cost of its manufacture and deployment and, from then on, will save around eight times the energy it consumes. IoT devices will also conserve nearly 230 billion cubic meters of water in 2030, the report says, with 35 percent of this impact coming from improved water grid operations and the balance boosted by IoT- enabled agricultural applications such as smart irrigation.
The benefits of big data are also expected to be crucial in justifying the IoT’s environmental footprint. When combined effectively with, for example, ML applications, the IoT will generate swathes of information to help people and organizations better understand their energy costs and make informed environmental decisions. Moreover, the key green benefits of the IoT will largely come from enterprise solutions, which are generally associated with efficiency savings – often in the form of reduced electricity consumption leading to lower carbon emissions (see case study below, Smart lights cut carbon emissions) or reduced fuel or water consumption, for example through smart electricity grid operations.
On more modest scales, innovative developers are doing their bit to use the IoT to create solutions that cut down the total amount of resources the world consumes. For example, the Smarter Sustainable World Challenge with Nordic Semiconductor competition—launched in conjunction with hardware education community hackster.io (an Avnet company)—called upon participants to plan, design and prototype cutting-edge solutions that reduce humanity’s ecological footprint using the power of sensors and wireless connectivity. Participants were provided with the Nordic Thingy:53 multiprotocol prototyping platform to help them realize their innovative ideas.
The overall winner, Elijah Maluleke from South Africa, created a smart water tap leakage controller that automatically closes a valve whenever there is an abnormal flow of water through the water tap. The volume of water saved by using the IoT device, when scaled to millions of water sources, would have a huge impact on conservation efforts. Another entrant, Mateusz Pająk from Poland, used the IoT technology to create a vertical self-regulating soilless farm built to fight the food storage crisis and at the same time achieve maximum yield.
Nordic corporate customers are also sustainably developing innovative solutions to help other businesses and communities work towards a greener future. One example is China-based MOKO Smart’s MK117NB Smart Plug, a Nordic-powered Bluetooth LE/cellular IoT electricity plug that can be used to monitor energy usage and save power consumption by remotely controlling load switches. Another is Canadian technology firm AquaSensing’s Leak Sensor 1.0, a battery free, self powered leak detection device using a sensor as both its power source and for detecting water leaks. The solution harvests energy from any fluid ingress to power the Nordic nRF52832 SoC that wirelessly connects to a smartphone, from where the user can receive alerts of active leaks via an accompanying app.
The flexibility built into Nordic IoT solutions—which are used in millions of IoT applications optimizing resource usage in areas of energy, travel, transport, agriculture, manufacturing, waste handling, smart cities and more— makes it easy to customize the trade-off between duty cycle, throughput and battery life to suit the needs of the application. Nordic also builds its hardware to last for years, backwards compatible with previous generations of its products. Software is continuously upgraded to include new features and easily downloaded through over-the- air software updates. These upgrades make it simple for customers to enhance the performance and lower the energy consumption of products in the field.
Network equipment provider Cisco suggests that in as little as a decade, there could be more than 50 billion wireless and cellular IoT sensors. Many of those will be powered by batteries. Apart from the maintenance issues—even if each cell lasts for a decade, technicians across the globe would still be faced with changing millions of batteries every day—those cells threaten to undermine the IoT’s sustainability credentials. Exotic materials such as lithium must be mined, the cells must be fabricated, then distributed around the world, and then there’s the major problem of safely disposing of them once exhausted.
Nordic has continually lowered the power budget of its wireless solutions without compromising performance. Such is the modest power consumption of its latest generation of products that, in certain applications, energy from harvested sources alone is sufficient to power the end-product.
Tomorrow’s wireless solutions will be even more efficient, dramatically extending the range of applications that will be able to harvest all their energy from the environment. And a new generation of power management ICs (PMICs), customized for energy harvesting devices, will stabilize the variability of harvested-energy sources and play a significant part in freeing IoT products from batteries.
While the potential for a thriving connected world is huge, we must ensure sustainability is built into everything we do. It’s clear the challenges are immense, but the stakes are even higher. But by no longer simply taking, making, using and disposing, we are adopting a better way.
Together with clever engineers, progressive politicians and savvy consumers, the IoT can ensure sustainability becomes a part of everything we design, manufacture, use and discard. We have the technology, we have the tools, we have the motivation and we still have a beautiful planet. All we need to do now is work together to keep it that way.