Design for life

The world’s largest producer of mobile phones and televisions, Samsung, isn’t necessarily known for its commitment to sustainability. But Nick Livermore finds that the Korean manufacturer is taking strides towards improving product lifecycles

Evolution kit

Now more than ever, the number of electronic devices on the market and in the grasp of consumers is increasing apace. According to Ofcom, in the fourth quarter of 2011 there were 81.6 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK alone – more operational phones than people. However, so easy are these electronic commodities to come by that we often fail to give a second thought to how they are produced and what becomes of their parts when we cast them aside. What happens to the plastic, metal and hazardous circuitry that constitutes the innards of modern gadgetry when they inevitably drift into a state of obsolescence? 

In an attempt to tackle these growing waste and pollution worries, Greenpeace has, for the past few years, published report cards assessing the ‘commitment and progress’ made by the world’s major electronics manufacturers in three environmental criteria: ‘Energy and Climate, Greener Products, and Sustainable Operations’. Mindful of the growing concern on behalf of customers to purchase ‘green’ products, Greenpeace aims to ‘provide consumers with a snapshot of the sustainability of the biggest names in the industry’.

Seventh of a possible sixteen, Samsung, the world’s largest mobile phone and television manufacturer, scored 4.2 out of 10 in the 2012 report cards, and received the feared appraisal of ‘could do better’. However, though it could be said that the South Korean giant has quite some way to go in terms of sustainability, the firm did score a ‘medium’ for product lifecycle, a category in which all its competitors in the top 10 scored ‘low’ or ‘zero’.

Speaking to Kevin Considine, Sustainability Affairs Manager at Samsung Electronics (UK) Ltd, it seems that Samsung’s own ‘Eco-Design System’ (EDS) and ‘Eco-Rating System’ (ERS) play a major role in the firm’s achievements in this area. Established in 2008, the ERS aims to ensure eco-friendliness by identifying ’20 basic items’ and ‘about 20 distinct items’ that need to be observed in the marketplace. The ERS schemes aim to enhance energy efficiency and increase the use of recyclable and eco-friendly materials, and see all Samsung products given an ‘eco rating’: Eco-Product, Good Eco-Product, or Premium Eco-Product. In doing this, Considine notes that “all our products achieve premium product status... in respect that they make the highest environmental standards”.

TV Samsung

Also indicative of this lifecycle approach is Samsung’s ‘battery life extension mode’ for PCs, which aims to mitigate potential damage to laptop batteries as a result of over-charging. As Considine explains: “If you’re recharging your battery up to a full charge, that’s where the degradation of the battery occurs.” By enabling the ‘battery life extension mode’, consumers are able to charge their batteries to no more than 80 per cent, thus minimising the risk of battery damage due to overcharging or overheating, thereby prolonging their lifecycle. 

Despite these and other steps, Samsung’s ‘medium’ rating highlights that there remains room for improvement in terms of product lifecycles. Indeed, in its report, Greenpeace noted: ‘For maximum points it also needs to show some innovative measures that increase lifespan and durability of whole product systems, rather than only individual parts.’ According to Samsung, work undertaken by European design consultancies into durability has been fed back to headquarters in Korea, which it hopes will improve the work done by the digital appliance division. In addition, the company is working with universities to increase the number of engineers qualified to work on Samsung products, thus maximising the potential for repairing devices. 

One of the fundamental problems facing the extension of product lifecycle in the electronic gadget market is that technology is advancing so quickly, particularly in terms of user interface and experience. New iterations of cutting-edge devices are released frequently, with the latest phone receiving a hardware update every year. However, aware that improving product lifecycle can ultimately improve customer satisfaction (while having the knock-on effect of generating less waste), Samsung is taking steps to make obsolescence obsolete. 

Pioneering this approach is Samsung’s ‘Smart Evolution Kit’, a hardware add-on that allows those with high-end LED and plasma televisions to upgrade their existing sets. Speaking about the kit, Considine says: “The technology that’s incorporated within those [televisions] is moving on quite quickly, when you look at the last three years in TV development. What we have seen is the content moving on enormously, so the Evolution Kit allows you to upgrade your device to ensure you have the full user experience available.”

Of course, with the production of so many electrical goods comes a considerable amount of waste that ultimately needs to be dealt with. In 2011 alone, Samsung generated nearly 712,000 tonnes of waste globally, and though it claims to have recycled 91 per cent of that total, it is more difficult to account for post-consumer waste. However, the company says it is taking steps to ensure post-consumer recycling occurs where possible and has ‘established take-back systems to comply with the requirements of recycling laws where they exist’. In the UK, Samsung is a member of the compliance scheme European Recycling Platform (ERP).

More easy to control, though, is the waste that is created pre-consumer, and Samsung has made some headway in this area. For instance, it has developed a new type of packaging for large fridges, replacing the standard ‘paper and polystyrene’ with EPP (expanded polypropylene). Collected at the point of delivery, Samsung says this new ‘green packaging technology’, comprising four folding panels, can be ‘reused up to 40 times’, reducing carbon emissions and waste. However, when asked about plans to roll out similar schemes across other Samsung products, Considine highlights that the opportunity to do so relies heavily on “whether or not we have
access to that product at point of delivery”.     

“For refrigeration, there is a specific delivery process, whereby we have the ability to deliver directly into consumers’ homes. Where that exists, then there is a possibility to reclaim that packing. For mobile devices, for example, that doesn’t necessarily exist”, he adds.

This article was taken from Issue 71

Samsung phoneIn the Greenpeace report, Samsung scored just one out of three in the ‘use of recycled plastic in products’ category. And although Samsung had achieved its post-consumer plastics content recycling goal of 2.62 per cent by 2013, Greenpeace called for a ‘longer-term objective’ on this front. Samsung has now set a goal of ’25 per cent recycled plastic content out of total plastics used by 2025’. However, the firm does state its awareness of ‘key challenges’ that need to be overcome if it is to be reached. Chief among these is establishing a plentiful and continuous supply of suitable plastic that is of sufficient quality.

As one of the world’s largest electronics companies, Samsung seems to recognise the importance of improving its sustainability, in terms of both environmental impact and customer satisfaction. It’s clearly difficult to separate the two concerns in a business in which customer satisfaction is key, and Considine admits that trying to “push sustainability as having to be the leading issue all the time” makes him a “bit nervous”. Despite this, Samsung seems confident of meeting the challenge: “We understand that we need to continue to innovate in this area. There is an awful lot of pressure... we don’t put figures out there with the intention of not achieving them.”