A Fresh Take on Green Audio 2023
Driving home from the CES in Las Vegas, NV, to San Francisco, CA, was an adventure during intense storms, flooding, and landslides, all of which continued non-stop for the rest of the week. Breaking a half-decade of drought, the pounding rain brought home the reality of global warming. In researching our speaker enclosure materials directory, what emerged was the fact that we are at an inflection point toward a couple of truly meaningful “sustainability” programs. Product designers are going to need to get up to speed on materials that help their brands to succeed as the world pivots to a more circular economy. The circular economy is about transforming how we make and use products. It’s about avoiding waste and keeping materials in circulation at the end of their useful life, rather than sending them to the landfill.
Let’s start with a confession, in many ways I have mixed feelings about the “green movement.” Another admission is this article is an updated report of the one we published back in 2015 in Voice Coil’s sister magazine, audioXpress.
When Eco-Friendly Ideas Go Wrong
Of course, it makes good sense to conserve resources and not pollute. It is also good practice to maximize efficiency in product design. Yet there are aspects of “eco-friendly” initiatives that are actually wasteful and counterproductive. For example, recycling glass made from cheap and plentiful raw materials (limestone, sand, and salt cake) costs more and uses more energy for handling and producing than making new glass bottles. The dirty secret is that after you dutifully drag your bottles back to the supermarket in most localities they just dump them in the garbage.
Any good idea can take a wrong turn, resulting in misguided efforts at productivity. Consider the infamous USSR shoe factory in the 1960s that made only left shoes because their output would be higher than producing matching pairs. Great for Russian jokes but some fool running the show back then was serious. Planned obsolescence and some disposable products are anything but green, at least from my perspective. Perhaps the most irresponsible example was Delphi’s biodegradable wiring harness used by Mercedes in the mid-1990s. Potentially deadly over time, not to mention the Mercedes models with these crappy harnesses are unsellable. The plastic insulation flaked off on the main engine harness, throttle body harness, starter/alternator harness, and Mass Air Flow meter harness. On the other hand, biodegradable materials are obviously fine for disposable baby diapers, and also sane for product packaging, smartphone cases, plastic cups, and other shorter-term stuff.
Quality products should probably not be biodegradable. Intentionally designing in UV degradation is not a good approach and product stability and appearance will suffer. One aspect that is not apparent is serviceability. If a product can be repaired, it would not be tossed so quickly and therefore not need to be replaced. A positive example is a headphone in which the cable has connectors on both ends. In this case a cable can be replaced by the user so the headset does not need to be tossed or sent to a repair shop when the cable becomes intermittent.
Let’s look at a product category that is “disposable” (e.g., the typical in-box earphone fails within the first year of use). Intermittent cables and connectors, worn foam eartips, and an inadvertent visit to the washer/dryer are some of the causes of premature failure. Some popular Bluetooth earphones cannot retain stable operation if you break into a sweat at the gym, let alone encounter a downpour.
Contrast this with a headphone or earphone that can be worn for years, looking and feeling good, and maintaining its sound quality. This is true high value, and these qualities are inherently green. One example that comes to mind that was never intended as a “green” product — was the iconic Bang & Olufsen earphone. This product has a classic “design” (rather than short-term “fashion”), retains its appearance without discoloration or fading, has quality cables and connectors that last for years, and the value provided to the owner is excellent. While the purchase price was expensive, this earphone will outlast a half-dozen cheap earphones for about the same cost of ownership. Meanwhile, the sound quality, comfort, and style are superior.