There has been little innovation in designing products to last longer and resist efforts to make them more salvageable, says Alex Lobos, professor of industrial design at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “It may prevent them from cutting costs and making consumers replace products more often,” he says.
Last year, President Biden signed an order requiring cellphone companies and technology companies to provide their own software, repair manuals, tools and other components so that anyone can repair the products.
“It’s a good move, but there has to be a way to make the devices really salvageable,” says Lobos. For example, most electronic devices and mobile phones are made of glued materials and parts welded together to achieve cost efficiencies that are nearly impossible to disassemble. He says more sustainable design may only happen with legislation.
Skullcandy changed the design of its headphones for different reasons: sustainability and product differentiation. When Skullcandy founder Rick Alden started the company in the Park City elevator two decades ago, his startup was an innovator in the industry—among the first to put two woofers in every headphone cup.
But today, Skullcandy is sitting in a saturated $85 billion market in which headphones have become a commodity. Since its birth, the 300-employee company has worked to protect the earth and the climate by choosing everything from vendors and plastic components to how materials are transported and how energy-efficient their new headquarters are in Park City.
Fortiér admits that Skullcandy is taking a risk in an industry built around recurring revenue that relies on sales of newer model launches. Skullcandy, in essence, will eat its own revenue stream, which Fortier has refused to reveal how large it is. There is also a risk that the company will ship devices with additional parts that may or may not be used.
But the “land and expand” strategy is smart, says Urvashi Bhatnagar, author of The Sustainability Scorecard: How to Implement and Profit from Unexpected Solutions. Instead of constantly “dating” customers with new products, Skullcandy engages consumers over a longer lifespan, allowing them to capture a greater share of a consumer’s portfolio. “Skullcandy saves money in acquiring new customers,” she says.
On the plus side, Skullcandy won’t have the extra cost and time to design, build, ship and market new products. And there’s a high demand for sustainable products: Up to two-thirds of consumers say they want a company to take a stand on issues close to their hearts, according to a 2020 Accenture survey. Another report from KPMG indicates that 90 percent of customers are willing to pay More versus ethical retailers, 50 percent factor environmental and social practices into whether they make a purchase, and nearly 75 percent say they would leave the brand if they felt it puts profit on people. This is especially true for electronics consumersConsumer demand will continue to play a large role in forcing electronics companies to become more sustainable, says Bhatnagar.
Skullcandy’s internal research found that about half of its customers go and buy new products because their products haven’t been working properly or don’t have the longevity they did before. The other half bought new because they wanted a more advanced sound. “A lot of times, people put these devices in the drawer, forget about them, and eventually throw them away, but they are perfectly fine products with a lot of life in them,” Fortier says.