Today, Samsung launched its latest flagship smartphone family and, with it, its renewed effort to make sustainability part of its technological innovation. I had the opportunity to talk to Won-Joon Choi, EVP, Head of Research & Development Office at Samsung Mobile eXperience and Mark Newton, Director, Head of Corporate Sustainability, Samsung Electronics America, about the company-wide prioritization of sustainability, the challenges and hopes for what can be achieved.
Two years ago, Samsung Mobile set its sustainability goals to reach net zero by 2030, and since then, they have been guided on its mission by what it calls “Galaxy for the Planet” vision. Recently reorganized under the Samsung Mobile eXperience (DX) division, the team aims to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2027 and improve energy efficiency in products by 30% by 2030 by using energy-saving technologies and achieving zero standby power consumption in smartphone chargers by 2025. Also, by 2025, Samsung DX wants to achieve zero-waste to landfill in its global operation by minimizing waste generated across global operations and optimizing its products' lifecycles to last longer and be reused and recycled.
“Some people believe that if you prioritize sustainability, you may lose performance and vice versa. At Samsung, we think very differently. We don't believe it is an either-or problem to solve. Instead, we want to build the devices so that people do not need to choose or sacrifice the things they love to become more environmentally conscious,” says Choi.
One of the challenges in using recycled material is doing so without compromising the robustness of a device. With the Galaxy S23, Samsung has increased the format as well as the variety of recycled materials used compared to its predecessor. In the Galaxy S23, Samsung continues using post-consumer recycled ocean-bound plastic and adding pre-consumer recycled aluminum and recycled glass. These additions allowed to expand the use of recycled materials from internal components only to external ones bringing the overall number of components using recycled materials to 12 – double what was in the Galaxy S22. The screen of the Galaxy S23 uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus 2, which contains 22% pre-consumer recycled glass and maintains the same durability as the previous iteration. On the back of the device, Samsung used PET film that uses 80% recycled PET. The box the Galaxy S23 models come in has been totally redesigned and made with paper that is 100% recycled and certified to be sustainably sourced.
Increasing the use of recycled material in the devices is about more than just sustainability. When it comes to metals, for instance, it is a question of having enough materials to meet the demand of all the devices that are built. “If we don't get smarter about, literally mining scrap, we're going to just run out of materials that we need to make all the batteries and everything else. So we're thinking more broadly about this issue not just in terms of where we can get materials but also when we are recovering our materials where they can help serve other sectors,” explains Newton.
Beyond the production and packaging phase, there is more that Samsung is implementing throughout the lifecycle to make its smartphones more sustainable, from increased durability to increased longevity through software and security updates.
Last year, in the U.S., in collaboration with iFixit, Samsung launched a self-repair program that was very well received and aims at helping consumers with the three major issues they usually face with a device: the screen, the rear glass and the charging port. The kit supports Galaxy S20, S21, and S22 and will now add the S23. Consumers who wish to make their own repairs can purchase genuine device parts and the easy-to-repair tools directly from iFixit, Samsung 837, and other Samsung retails and service locations. Once the repair is done, consumers can return their discarded parts for responsible recycling using the prepaid label that came with the repair kit.
Upcycling is also an important tool that Samsung uses to bring new life into obsolete devices. In 2021, it launched the Samsung Galaxy Upcycling at the Home initiative in the U.S., UK and Korea. Via the SmarThings Labs, a feature within the SmartThings apps, users can repurpose built-in sensors to provide enhanced sound and light-control features. For instance, using AI, these repurposed Galaxy devices can detect sounds like a baby crying, a dog barking, or a cat meowing or knocking and send an alert to the user’s phone. In 2022, Samsung took it a step further and used upcycling to make a social impact on an issue that affects 1.1 billion people, 90% of whom live in low-and-middle-income countries: vision loss. Samsung partnered with the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) and Yonsei University Health System (YUHS) to turn old and unused Galaxy devices into medical diagnosis cameras called EYELIKE™ fundus cameras, which allow both medical and non-medical professionals to screen people for conditions that may lead to blindness.
Newton argues, and I agree, that sustainability and overall company values are something that younger consumers are very much interested in. This means that for Samsung, these initiatives, as is often the case, are not just a good thing for the environment and society; they can also positively impact its business bottom line.
While most of the attention at Unpacked was on the new Galaxy S23 line, Samsung also introduced three new laptops, the Galaxy Book3 Pro, Book3 Pro 360, and Book3 Ultra, all incorporating recycled ocean-bound plastic and post-consumer material.
“We are only getting started on our sustainability journey. As an engineer, there is nothing better than finding solutions that solve difficult problems. Knowing that a small investment made in one of our products can have a considerable impact on the environment because of our scale is extremely exciting,’ concluded Choi.
As we look ahead at the next generation of computing and Samsung celebrates the partnership with Qualcomm and Google in building the next immersive computing platform, it is reassuring to know that sustainability will be an important component of the innovation journey the company will embark on.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.