Why sustainability in the tech sector cannot be a compromise

Mar 15, 2022 |2 min read
sustainability is possible

Seeking to understand the development of sustainability in the technology industry during our internship at 2CV, we conducted a research project that aimed to explore the ways in which sustainability exists in the industry and the ways in which it could be further implemented. This blog post contains some of our major findings.

On the surface, the COVID-19 Pandemic and the industrial revolution may not seem like they have much in common. However, both created an opportunity for change.  Since the industrial revolution, technology has been the driving force for human progression, but it’s a double-edged sword, accelerating progress - but also accelerating the environmental disaster we now face.

The conversation around sustainability is huge across many industries, and we wanted to look at how it is talked about in the tech sector. Our project ultimately revealed four main takeaways:

  1. Covid has provided an opportunity for changes in behaviour
  2. Sustainability cannot be a compromise
  3. Trust and transparency are vital for sustainability in tech
  4. Sustainability can be fashionable

 

Covid and opportunities for behaviour change

Our data suggests that the pandemic has shifted sustainability in the minds of consumers, making it more of a public concern. During the pandemic there have been many external influences affecting the respondents concern of sustainability such as COP26 and an increase in climate activism. This and time to think has culminated in more apparent consideration of sustainability when buying. It is no longer something that can be ignored. Our qualitative findings consistently highlighted that though few consider the tech industry as sustainable, they want it to be.

The pandemic has created a disconnect between consumers’ desire for sustainability and the reality of the tech industry; the demand is there but the product or company ethos is not.

It became apparent in our research that consumers recognised that Covid has proven rapid world change is possible, as seen with the many lockdowns, shift to online working, and vaccine rollouts, thus eradicating any real concern that the tech world cannot change too. Tech companies now have an opportunity to adopt sustainable practices, successfully and meaningfully.

 

Sustainability cannot be a compromise

Generally when making purchases, consumers consider sustainability less for tech products than for generic products such as food or clothing. Only one in four of our respondents saw the tech industry as sustainable, and though demand for sustainability is rising, the majority of respondents ranked either price or brand as the most important consideration when purchasing a tech product. To implement sustainability effectively, companies must maintain a convenient price while adding sustainability benefits supplementarily, rather than adding to cost.

Currently, there is a gap in the market for a reputable yet affordable tech brand that is also considered sustainable. Consumers expressed clear frustration with sustainability, and feel they often have to compromise for a lesser product. “Sometimes I just want a shiny new device. If I am spending that much money, I don’t want to compromise on quality”.

Nobody wants to pay a premium price without optimal value, and this is particularly emphasised in tech due to the industry’s high price points. During our research, it was exciting to hear respondents discussing sustainable tech brands such as Fairphone. You can see opportunity for growth from Fairphone if they are able to produce phones that also have the best tech specifications. Currently for the average consumer, sustainability is seen as a compromise on quality, which is a barrier for many.  If companies can balance sustainability with performance, consumers will be more willing to purchase a sustainable tech product.

 

Trust and transparency are vital

A consistent finding across our research was that for tech to be successfully sustainable companies must be trustworthy. Respondents voiced scepticism with the tech industry, largely due to companies past behaviours and current attitudes. This concern affected their willingness to trust in ‘tech giants’ to actually be sustainable. The desired solution appeared to be transparency. “It goes much broader than just sustainability. It’s all one, it’s: are they nice? Do they care?”.

It is evident that consumers lack trust in tech companies due to their lack of clarity on their practices and supply chain. Increasing transparency may allow tech companies to gain consumers’ trust as they shift to sustainable practices.

 

Sustainability can be fashionable

Tesla is an example that highlights the possibility for a tech company to use sustainability to enhance their products, clarify their brand positioning and ultimately grow their business. The company is widely regarded as a pioneer in the sustainability and tech space, with the Tesla Model 3 being the world's best-selling electric vehicle. One former Tesla employee famously states, “Tesla is not an automotive company, it’s a tech company that builds cars.” Respondents considered Tesla products as ‘fashionable’, creating “an aspirational car that also happens to be electric”. Sustainability does not mean compromise when it comes to a Tesla product, rather the opposite. Sustainability is an integral part of its brand appeal.

Our research also indicates that those most likely to consider sustainability when purchasing are predominately young, early adopters of technology. Thus, there is an opportunity for tech companies to capitalise on a youthful, highly engaged market. The benefits of doing so, and doing so well, may lead to lifelong brand loyalty.

 

So....

Though many recognise the problems constituted by the climate crisis, consumers still desire high-quality tech products, which generally are not going to be sustainable. Therefore, there remains a contradiction between consumers climate concern and their tech purchasing behaviour. While this allows the tech industry to continue as they have done for decades, the growing demand for sustainability, particularly post-pandemic, may mean this contradiction is short-lived. Indeed, over time, the call for sustainability in the technology industry will only grow louder.

Tech companies now have an opportunity to disrupt the industry as Tesla did so, by being the first to truly employ sustainability to augment their products. However to do so effectively they must ensure quality and performance, as right now sustainability is a compromise, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.