Sustainability: Go green or go bust

As demand for climate action grows globally, the AV industry must face the change. Reece Webb discovers how integrators and manufacturers are making a difference.

In the wise words of Kermit the Frog: “It isn’t easy bein’ green”. Say what you like about that little muppet, but his words certainly seem prophetic in the midst of a climate crisis where action often feels lacking. Climate change demands action at every level in every industry across the globe, and the AV industry is no exception.

If you took a walk around ISE in Barcelona this year, you would have seen plenty of manufacturers crowing about sustainability, either boasting about sustainable stand design or praising the eco-friendly offerings on their stands. It’s important to remember that while this is as in important step, talk can often be cheap; The United Nations identifies the phenomenon of greenwashing as a significant obstacle to tackling climate change by misleading the public to believe that a company or other entity is doing more to protect the environment than it is. This can be achieved through being purposely vague or non-specific about a company’s operations or materials used, claiming to be on track to reduce a company’s pollution to net zero without a credible plan in place, or applying intentionally misleading labels such as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’, terms which do not have standard definitions and can be misinterpreted by consumers.

When it comes to sustainability, it’s important to avoid buzz words as much as possible. Such a broad term encapsulates net zero targets, carbon emissions, energy efficiency, social impact and more.

Simon Watson, global head of innovation, Kinly, explains: “We haven't had tangible way of defining all of those segments and it's been an education process for us and for the industry.

“We have noticed a positive shift in engagement. Historically, AV spoke to facilities, then IT managers, but when we talk about sustainability, we now have to engage with our client’s ESG and HR teams because HR is in the workplace, and they have a big hand on CSR (corporate social responsibility) to make sure that the right technology is put in the right environment and the right conditions for the employee experience.

Action is being taken; just take a look at a recent project featured in Inavate - TwistedPair went the extra mile at Uber’s EMEA headquarters (see Inavate EMEA March 2024) to select displays that were specifically manufactured in Europe to meet the client’s sustainability requirements, cutting down the carbon footprint and shipping costs. TwistedPair even opened a local office in the Netherlands to purchase stock through local suppliers and to enhance the support for clients in the Netherlands, including Uber.

Sustainability is beginning to gain a foothold, not just in the AV industry but in the law books, too. Anders Jørgensen, project manager, Stouenborg, explains: “The digital product passport is coming. This is a digital record that provides comprehensive information on how the product and the entire value chain works. The aim is to create norms and standards and is set to be implemented in 2024, with full implementation by 2030.

“This has led to interesting things happening; Some manufacturers are only implementing the digital product passport on screens. We as an integrator will also need to do this as we create products; as soon as we put together different components [into a system], we need to deliver the digital product passport to the end client; this will be a demand that we will meet. We should show them the entire chain from installation to dismantling down the line in decades to come.”

Waste not

As a fast-paced technology-centric industry, systems and individual products are frequently replaced with newer models within a short timeframe, meaning products often have a shorter lifespan than they could have, not to mention the mountains of packaging for products that are manufactured and disposed of every day. The audiovisual industry is no stranger to generating a lot of obsolete products, and therefore E-waste, across the globe, so what happens to these products in the long run?

Sam Dimond, founder, Spotlight Sound, explains: “Our business is split 50/50 between events and installation, and we do see a lot of waste from redundant equipment that we remove from sites. The question we ask is where is the incentive to dispose of that properly? Everything to do with recycling as a business will cost us money.

“When we do an install or carry out an upgrade, the client is always asking us to remove the waste. Previously, you could leave it with the property to deal with, but as it is now more expensive than ever to get rid of waste, that cost is being pushed back to us. We now have a warehouse full of pallets and cages that we must dispose of, and we do want to get rid of it responsibly, separated out into its components for recycling, but we do not have the manpower and facilities to do that.”

Recycling and disposal will take up essential warehouse space, with UK and European businesses requiring a dedicated license to dispose of electronic products responsibly. The World Health Organization identified E-waste as the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world, growing three times faster than the world population. In a 2019 study, more than 53.6 million tonnes of E-waste were produced globally. That number has likely risen.

Shelley Townend, marketing manager, Universal AV, explains: “When our clients replace their AV equipment, we work with them to ensure it is disposed of sustainably. Where possible, we repurpose equipment, offering it to charitable organisations. We hold a WEEE (waste electronical and electronic equipment) carrier licence and dispose of products using a local WEEE registered company.

“We have purchased two baling machines enabling us to better manage the recycling of all packing material including cardboard, polystyrene, and plastic. This is not without its challenges. The baled material takes up a lot of warehouse space while we wait for it to be collected. In order to be carbon neutral, the collection company takes 24 bales at a time, usually twice a year. Over the two collections, 21,772 kilos of material is recycled.  None of this material reaches landfill.

Townend continues: “We continually strive to minimise our impact on the environment – it’s not always an easy balance. When the ISO contractor asked if we wanted to reduce the amount of packaging we handled, we replied no - we want to increase it! In our business, packaging is inevitable. More packaging means more business! What we do want to do is minimise waste, recycle materials and not contribute to landfill.”

While taking a moral stand against a throwaway culture and mounting waste is all well and good, most sustainability schemes in the industry are carried out at cost, an issue which, according to Dimond, is driven by a lack of incentive.

Dimond continues: “This industry is very environmentally intensive. When you think about technology, equipment, labour, logistics and power, it’s all very infrastructure heavy areas. Logistically, there is a lot of waste around events; all of this kit has to be trucked in, and we know there is a big push for electric vehicles but they’re not suitable for that kind of work at the moment.

“We’re very heavy in terms of what we as an industry use and there isn’t a lot of incentive to change that. The incentive right now is peoples’ perceptions and the fact that we want to do good. Financially, there is absolutely no incentive whatsoever, anything we do for sustainability costs us money as a business.”

While recycling is an effective method of reducing E-waste, clarity from manufacturers is urgently needed to identify the precise footprint that a product has on the environment.

Rhea Horlock, global CSR lead, Kinly, explains: “There’s a big gap at the moment with some manufacturers between what they're saying and the data that we can then pass on to clients to show how [technology] can impact some of their ESG goals and targets. I think we've seen some really good progress, but I think over the next year we really need to take a big step forward in terms of how products turn into X million tonnes of E-waste or carbon emissions, we need to start seeing the data on that. Lots of industries have done that and AV hasn’t.”

Made to last  

What action are manufacturers taking to ‘do their bit’ and what is driving the change? Remmelt van der Woude, owner, Ctouch, explains: “The demand for sustainability is coming from end users. Resellers are quite slow in adopting sustainability in their business practices. 

“We see EU and UK law on sustainability is becoming stricter, and more clear regulation is certainly needed. We are talking to DFE in the UK to help putting sustainability into practice in the IFPD market. We need to work more closely together in the supply chain. It’s the basis of increased circularity. Furthermore, we see mainly in higher education and bigger corporates that they have goals and programs for sustainability. We contribute to their goals in lowering CO2 impact and social goals related to the UN SDG’s. As budgets are significantly lower in education compared to a few years ago, the investments in IFPD should be more futureproof so the period of financial deprecation is longer.”

According to its sustainability report, the company aims to lower the weight of its products and use less materials to cut down on its C02 footprint, while also making use of renewable energy at its production facilities for the panel, metal, aluminium, glass and printed circuit boards. Ctouch also takes back screens and refurbishes them for new customers through its Ctouch Next Life program, updating the screens and continuing their lifecycle once their original use is up. 

Van der Woude continues: “The basis of everything we do is to lengthen the lifetime of our products. We promise to be able to update our products in functions, firmware, and security for the next 10 years. This means that the products are designed in a way where they can be upgraded in firmware but also in Android versions. Products are designed according to the principles of ‘Sustainability by Design’. This modular design we have applied since the launch of Ctouch Laser Sky and Nova in 2019. So we go back quite some years in our sustainable and modular approach.

“Over 50% of the numbers of displays we sell, should have a happy user even after 10 years. This means we need to engage with our customers to ensure they are satisfied with the performances of our screens.  [The industry] shouldn’t bring touch displays to the market that are outdated within days of coming to market, that’s the wrong business approach that is solely focussed on making money and not caring for our planet and the challenges we have. We make the environmental challenge a personal one.”

Credible action can also create opportunities for manufacturers as end users and integrators become more client conscious. 

Watson adds: “It’s all about credibility, and we could only be as credible as the manufacturers that we were buying from. We’re going through a process of sustainability by design, by looking at which manufacturers are credible, which manufacturers do adhere to the right standards and it’s quite simple – if manufacturers don’t adhere to those standards, we don’t deal with them anymore. 

“We’re going through all of our manufacturers at the moment. Historically it's always been done via how much money we spend with them and support/features, but now sustainability is at the top of that list.”

For some, sustainability goes far beyond creating products using recyclable materials or sustainable development process. Part of the problem could lie in how much we as an industry create.

Jørgensen explains: “We need to create systems and products that last many years. Manufacturers need to look at their product lifespans and think about how lifespans can be extended. I would like to see manufacturers committing to products that have a 10-15 lifespan while staying in spec. From that time, you could expect a degree of lower performance, but they will last.

“The lifespan of products needs to be better, and we as an industry need to demand that a display from development to exiting production has a longer lifespan. I have seen some products cease production in as short as a timeframe of 24 months. In an ideal world, products should be made with replaceable parts. The products that we work with should be able to be opened, replace an LED component or projector part in order to extend their lifespans.”

Pave the way 

While action is underway, it’s clear that the industry can do much more - “We want standards that we can abide by” says Dimond, “It's only by doing our own research and looking around for details on recycling, materials and transport that we're just picking up little nuggets of information.

“We're trying to do what we can, and we would like to do more, but we don't have a lot of guidance on it. There must be so many companies who want to do more and if an industry body issued guidance, then I think you would get a lot of adoption very quickly.”

This need for greater action must also be echoed on the manufacturer side according to van der Woude: “The industry needs to set clear targets and have initiatives in place to lower their footprint. We align with the net zero strategy, and we have our goals SBTi certified. Going forward, vendors should have a transparent sustainability plan, and legislation such as product passports, maximum power consumption and life cycle assessment’s (LCA’s) should be mandatory.”

For Horlock, we are all in this together, meaning greater communication and transparency is a priority - “Sustainability gives companies competitive edges for clients that care about sustainability, but it should not be a kind of trade secret. For manufacturers, when sustainable innovations are available, they should be shared. There should be forums and opportunities to do that.

“The whole industry can move forward, but it shouldn't be an add-on. Right now , there's not enough opportunities for people to get together and learn, share and understand what more the industry as a whole could do and that needs to change.”


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