An article by Rowan Phillimore, originally published in The Guardian – Gaia Principles Offer a Sustainable Way to Manage Supply and Legacy – Monday 10th February 2014

A study of laptops by the ├ľko Institute showed that 56% of the total greenhouse gas emissions of a laptop are produced in the production phase. This means that if you buy a new laptop which is 10% more energy efficient, it would still take up to 89 years of use to cancel out the GHGs generated in the production, distribution and disposal of the product.

With the average lifespan of a laptop being 3-5 years it’s clear that buying new, greener products can make only a limited contribution to emissions reductions, and why at the consumer level, we are all restricted in our power to change the system. The goods that we might like to support – goods that reflect a truly sustainable lifecycle – barely even exist.

This poses an exciting challenge for designers and social enterprises seeking to lead efforts towards a circular economy. Those businesses that currently claim to be “sustainable” may find that their credentials fall short when they ask themselves a new set of questions: is our product designed to last? Do we take responsibility for what happens after its use? Do we know our supply chain all the way to the bottom?

The Gaia Foundation’s 2013 report, Short Circuit, exposes the ecological destruction and human rights violations at every stage in the lifecycle of gadgets such as smartphones and laptops.

If we take seriously our responsibility to the planet and to future generations, then we must be “Gaian” in our approach to business. In nature’s cycles nothing is wasted. Why shouldn’t business seek to do the same? As the social and ecological fallout of our gadgetry becomes clear, here are some of the first steps that must be taken to navigate the transition ahead.

1. Designed to last

We need to pressure companies to be more responsible, designing for longevity, upgradeability, re-use and recyclability, not for obsolescence and the scrapheap. Changes that are made at the design phase are, ecologically and economically, far more efficient.

If products are designed for longevity demand for new raw materials used in new products will decrease and there are plenty of budding eco-designers ready to rise to this challenge. In 2010 a group of Stanford University students created the Bloom Laptop, which can be fully disassembled by hand by the user within 30 seconds in just 10 steps.Phonebloks is attempting to create an entirely modular, easily upgradeable smartphone. The innovation and capacity is there – the task is to ensure that sustainable design is recognised as a must and attracts investment accordingly.

2. Transparency in the supply chain

The majority of us have no clue how our products came into being. Supply-chain transparency is essential if we are to remove ourselves from unwittingly supporting conflict minerals and the destruction of ecosystems. It must be frowned upon to not know the origin of your product and its components. To help inform our choices, the European Make IT Fair Campaign and the Greenpeace unethical supplier list both provide information about electronics suppliers and companies.

3. Take back

All gadgets will reach the end of their life, making e-waste a huge problem. Groups such as the Electronics Take Back Coalition are now lobbying for technology companies to take responsibility for dealing with the gadgets they sell throughout the whole lifecycle. This follows the polluter pays principle.

The “you make it, you take it back” approach promotes green design and responsible recycling, making it in companies’ own interests to be ecological stewards. This is another step towards closing the loop: reinvesting already extracted materials back into the system of manufacture to create a circular economy.

4. Supply chain and the circular economy

In nature, the waste of one species is the food of another. Decomposing organisms provide nutrients and fertiliser for other plants and animals; a forest is made up of mutually enhancing ecosystems where nutrients and water circulate over and over again. The circular economy and zero waste approach attempts to emulate the cyclical qualities of natural systems, ensuring that there is no output that cannot be used again.

Building on these initiatives and principles, now is the time to innovate: withdraw support from entities that refuse to be responsible; become advocates for our life-sustaining planet; refuse, reduce, re-use, repair, re-gift and recover.

As activist Satish Kumar said: “If we lived in harmony with the natural world for its own sake and not because of any utilitarian purpose then there would be no need to worry about depletion, pollution or extinction.”

Rowan Phillimore is Head of Communications at The Gaia Foundation