Welcome to the final week of Fearlessly Frank’s Ultimate Nemesis series. This series is about understanding how an unforeseen challenger can disrupt even an established business model, and so we’ve chosen to go out this week not with a whimper, but with an apocalyptic bang.
And what better way to listen to an apocalyptic bang than in the modern fashion: through a pair of Apple AirPods, the tech giant’s controversial but iconic wireless headphones that are now standard attire for many urbanites? These instantly recognisable white plastic appendages are now the choice du jour for beaming our podcasts and Spotify playlists into our ears, but du jour is an accurate description here – Apple have been criticised in the past for their short product cycles and accused of manufactured obsolescence, a fact that becomes more worrying when you read reports – such as this one from designlife-cycle.com – that Apple are still falling short in terms of the biodegradability of their materials.
Now, this is not to single out Apple – as we’ve explored before on this blog, we often don’t think of the massive amounts of logistics and resources that go into creating our favourite tech products, which we then quickly throw away as soon as next generation’s flashier iteration hits the shelves. Not only are four widely-used mobile materials – tungsten, tantalum, gold and tin – classed as “conflict materials,” whose sourcing is linked to violence and atrocities in countries from which they are mined and sourced – but there is also an environmental and ethical impact stemming from how we dispose of old tech, with much of it ending up in (often illegal) “e-disposal” sites in countries such as Vietnam and Ghana. As of March this year, Apple were the second-biggest manufacturer using conflict materials, and we collectively need an improved infrastructure for disposing of obsolete tech – and perhaps a new approach to how quick we are to upgrade perfectly-usable pieces of technology.
Apple aren’t doing anything here that they haven’t always done – in fact, the yearly product cycle has been a trend-setting part of their business model for years, and they have been – to put it mildly – quite successful in it. Therein lies the challenge. We live in an age where consumer priorities can spring up and spread as quickly as a wildfire, and nowhere is that more obvious than with environmental consciousness.
“Ethical consumption” has, in recent years, affected the food industry hugely, allowing scores of new challengers to emerge with greener offerings. Some companies, like Ben and Jerry’s, have taken this in their stride and turned it into a huge opportunity, where others – with less sustainable practises at the heart of their models – are finding themselves struggling. As headlines continue to emerge about extinction threats to swathes of species, and pressure from protest groups like Extinction Rebellion growing, will it be long before the tech industry also has to face its reckoning from the public? We’ve already seen movement in the tech-for-good space and predicted a growing market for b-corps – and with scrutiny over Silicon Valley getting stronger by the minute, this could be where even a huge company like Apple finds itself vulnerable to challengers. Let’s imagine a tech company – we’ll call the Grapefruit — that was able to fuse Apple’s innovative sense of style and design with openly sustainable new tech practices. With consumer values changing year on year towards ecological responsibility, the stage is pretty much set for a tech challenger to emerge that turns climate anxiety into a selling-point.
What if, for example, Grapefruit was to commit to not using conflict materials, for a start? We’ve seen from the vegan food revolution that a large number of people are happy to boycott products they like on ethical grounds, so our iPhone addictions might not be enough to stave off challenges from more sustainable offerings. But what if Grapefruit was also able to invest in chemical and agri-tech solutions for issues like tech biodegradability? What if Grapefruit built products designed to last longer than a year, with frequent software updates giving the consumer a sense of innovation without the hardware itself changing? Or, what if they were to preserve the annual-upgrade model, but pioneer the world’s first fully-biodegradable laptops, phones, and earbuds? By using more environmentally-friendly materials, a company like Grapefruit could make Apple feel less like a forward-thinking, modern tech brand and more like a brand stuck in an obsolete era of disposable luxury and indulgence. Companies like Symphony Environmental Technologies are already claiming to be world-leaders in oxo-biodegradable and anti-microbial plastics, so it might not be a fanciful future but an imminent reality.
Obviously, none of us are likely to be walking around with AirPods made of mulch and clay anytime soon – but the extent of the material problems of mass-scale tech consumption is not going to reduce on its own, and our awareness – and willingness to vote with our wallets – will grow, not shrink. As tech increasingly defines our lifestyles, we are becoming increasingly aware of its wider impact and how it intersects with our political worries – and, as companies like Apple may eventually learn, consumer attitudes and habits can turn on a dime.
That’s why Apple’s Ultimate Nemesis is likely to be one which understands and explores these concerns in a way that Apple will likely refuse – or be unable – to do. Make no mistake – AirPod plastic may last for decades, but if Apple are too large, too slow-moving and too complacent to respond to modern consumer concerns, then their market dominance might not.