The sustainability of wearables will depend on how we use them

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James Hook
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The pace at which various high -tech products have proliferated in consumer markets during the past few decades has been furious. Think for instance the emergence of mobile phones in the 1980s in comparison to today’s nearly 5 billion mobile phone users.

Yet the future forecast is even more inconceivable: the Internet of Things (IoT) is envisioned to have over 20 billion connected objects by 2020 (!). That means there will be over double as many internet-connected devices than there are people in the whole wide world.

One reason for this rapid growth is a fastly developing trend of wearable technology, i.e. electronic devices that are worn on the body’s surface like clothes and accessories. The most popular example so far is the smartwatch, yet, apparels and clothes, handbags, jewelry, and glasses are becoming ever more important platforms for wearable computing. The technology is becoming more ubiquitous and more pervasive and it will permeate every aspect of human life.

While the emergence of wearable technology provides ample opportunities to develop and make our every day lives more convenient, it also has its drawback. As Andreas Köhler very aptly stated, “the society and economy have become dependent on products that consist of scarce materials, run on electricity, and are very difficult to recycle” (2013).

Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we consider carefully the adverse impacts of new technological innovations before they materialize on a larger scale. With correct design, production, use, and disposal wearable technologies can be part of the vision towards more sustainable societies. But this requires much more than mere technological improvements — it requires a shift in our mindsets.

Sustainability challenges

Perhaps the most significant concern with wearable technology is that combining electronics and textiles, which both are relatively short-lived mass consumer goods, would intensify product obsolescence and lead to even shorter service lives.

Whereas fashion industry is infamously known for its fast, seasonally changing trends, the short innovation cycles, and software incompatibility are well-acknowledged challenges in the sector of consumer electronics. There is a fear that wearable technologies would end up being yet another mass consumed and mass disposed of consumer good.

In the worst case scenario, wearable technologies could amplify impacts on the environment, human health, and societies through increasing power consumption, consumption of scarce resources and generating large streams of hard-to-recycle electronic waste. While the demand for critical raw materials would increase and aggravate the phenomenon of material scarcity, on the other end of the supply chain these valuable resources would be lost due to the difficulty to separate them correctly in the recycling process.

Numerous small e-waste items could end-up in normal household waste and even more critically, problematic substances could end-up in the environment polluting water, soil, and air, and causing harm to human health.

In addition, wearable technologies would further intensify an always-online — culture, which could have a harmful impact on genuine human interactions and general wellbeing. Lastly, there are plenty of data privacy and security issues related to the rise of wearable technologies that should not be undermined.

Sustainability opportunities

However, it is also assumed that wearable technology can have a disruptive influence on current mass consumption patterns, once they make a breakthrough. They could possibly help to slow down the consumption of new products by lengthening the product lifespan.

This could be realized for instance by manufacturing more durable materials and by increasing awareness and knowledge of correct maintenance and cleaning practices in new, more innovative ways to better capture the focus of users (e.g. visual markers, AR). But in order to slow down the consumption of electronic gadgets, the multi-platform use and software compatibility should be ensured at all times. Moreover, the item must be able to adapt to users’ changing needs and wants.

Indeed, there are many proposals on how to keep up with the user’s changing desires and requirements. One way to go forward is to produce adaptable, multifunctional products that could be changed and modified according to the situation and use context. For instance, color-, shape- and temperature- changing materials with self-cleaning and -repairing functions have been presented as one possible solution to meet the changing user requirements in the future.

One way to achieve an expanded life cycle is to enhance the meaning creation between the user and the product. This is an area where the main advantage of wearable technologies lies on. By increasing the emotional attachment to a specific product, it is expected to have a longer lifetime.

Yet, this is not an easy task to comply. In order to achieve a strong attachment, the product has to connect with the user’s values and lifestyle, identity construction, personal memories, and aesthetic needs. A high degree of customization is required in order to support the meaning creation process.

Wearable technology can also bring along other significant advantages, namely in relation to social sustainability. Health and fitness related wearables can counteract issues related to population aging, curb health problems and decrease healthcare costs. They could allow for remote healthcare and early prevention, thus increasing the quality of life.

Wearable technologies could also help to retain cultural traditions and heritage by storing information and knowledge and passing them from generation to another. This could also help to support connectedness between individuals and communities. It is envisioned that wearable technologies could even play a role in helping public protection activities and responding to social crises.

The importance of user behavior

When an already existing product removes the need to buy a new one, the biggest sustainability benefit to the environment is realized — Kristi Kuusk (2016).

Ultimately, what will determine the sustainability effect of wearable technologies is the actual user behavior. Even though the product would be design according to the highest sustainability standards, it is the users’ small daily decisions that can override these efforts.

With conscious product design, many pitfalls can be avoided, but the resulting consumer behavior can never be fully controlled. Thus, whether wearable technologies are leading us in a right direction is crucially dependent upon how we will adopt them, how we will take care of them, how long we will use them and finally how we will dispose of them.

This article was originally published on Data Driven Investor by Jenna Vaajakari, a Digital Marketer and Innovation Researcher based in (Aalborg) Denmark. Vaajakari is interested in emerging innovations, behavioral science, sustainability, design, and aesthetics. You can read the piece here.

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