Most wearable tech promises a "better, healthier you" but what about the people making it and the impact on the planet? If the tech industry as a whole is anything to go by, that's not a particularly positive correlation on the better, healthier front.
So how are the biggest wearable companies faring on these metrics? And is there even a smaller, more sustainable option on offer from startups? From using different materials and exploring modularity to programs that take old tech from people who don't want it and give it to people who do, here are some of the moves to make wearables more eco and ethics friendly.
Same old gadget problems
Smartwatches and VR headsets, in particular, use the same processors, display tech and sensors as smartphones so the production problems will be much the same. With hybrids, trackers and smart jewellery, with perhaps just a few sensors, motors and antenna inside, the impact will be much lower.
There are a bunch of different tools to find out more about the environment and corporate social responsibility policies of the companies you're handing your money over to. Generally if you put eco-friendliness first, Apple comes off as the best of a bad bunch.
As a quick overview, over on CSRHub, Apple scores 62 overall - higher than average for in the electronics category - and 71 for environment.
By comparison, Fitbit scores 47 overall and 42 for environment, lower than average. Samsung gets 64 overall, which is skewed higher by how well it treats employees, and 67 for environment; Garmin is on 48 overall and 45 for eco issues. Xiaomi hasn't been rated yet, perhaps for a lack of data.
When talking about wearable tech, much the same applies as when discussing the social and environmental impact of smartphones. Think before you buy to make sure you make the right choice. Repair, resell/re-gift and - after everything else - recycle when you can.
When it comes to recycling, knowledge of wearables obviously lags behind smartphones and organisations need to catch up. That probably means there's more chance your old gadgets could end up as e-waste in somewhere like Agbogbloshie, Ghana.
Alternatively, there is a program at Tufts University, Massachusetts, called RecycleHealth which is asking for donations of old wearables, bands and chargers. The team redistributes the wearables to "underserved populations" which includes low income, elderly and ethic minority groups who might not have had the chance to get their hands on fitness trackers and other devices. Plus these groups will also feed into research at the university on whether free trackers can change behaviour.
Some small sustainable efforts
If you look hard enough, you can see some startups putting materials and sustainability front and centre. But not across every category. So, for instance, Bellabeat's Leaf Nature, part of its line of activity tracking jewellery is made from white ash wood or African Blackwood. The latest Leaf Urban is made from wood and an eco-plastic composite.
"With the Leaf Nature, we wanted to break this cold and clunky surface of tech and give it some more warmth," co-founder Urska Srsen explained when the Urban launched. "We went completely out of the box with natural wood and stainless steel. Now, we have an alternative that still satisfies our need to explore new materials and is as eco-friendly as we can be."
There have been a few other pushes in both eco and ethical spheres over the last few months. One is these is Tushi Pal, an Indiegogo project which combines a $99 fitness tracker and accessories handmade by indigenous Mayan artisans in order to provide work in Mexican communities. It was cancelled on Kickstarter after it failed to reach its target but has already passed its $15,000 goal on Indiegogo.
Another is Toms - following on from its shoe giveaways, its stylish grosgrain and woven Apple Watch Series 2 bands provide an entire year of solar light to an individual or household who needs it. Sure, that doesn't involve the people who actually produce the bands but it's an example of a nice long term tech tie-in.
Is modular the answer?
We're still waiting for the modular Blocks smartwatch, another crowdfund project. Its founders believe that not only could a modular approach save users money over a period of say, five years, it will also help ease the environmental burden.
So instead of buying two complete smartwatches (with built-in obsolescence) in that time, you could - in theory - buy one smartwatch and upgrade via new modules to freshen up the tech. It's a noble idea but Blocks specifically a very delayed first product, though it is about to go into beta testing, and a pretty chunky design.
Read these next
- âDoes modularity work for wearables?And if it's where things are heading, what exactly will it look like?
- The virtual reality etiquette guideVR headset and pants = strong look
- We chat to Bellabeat's co-founderThe co-founder and CPO turns over a new Leaf
- What doctors want to know from trackersMore than they're getting now, that's for sure
If it doesn't work for smartwatches, though, that doesn't mean that going modular wouldn't work for smart clothing or smart shoes. Where the tech elements can easily be removed and replaced, again, the impact will be lower. We're a long way from cradle-t0-cradle design - where products can be reused again and again - in this sector but there are a few hopeful signs at this early stage.
Does the ethical and environmental impact of the wearable tech you buy concern you? Have you heard of any startups trying to do things differently? Let us know in the comments.