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Audio Collaborative Waves the Flag for Sustainable Sound

We’re already witnessing the early rumblings of catastrophic environmental decline. The news serves as a constant reminder of the urgent need for action, and the audio industry has a lot to answer for. E-waste, specifically the 53.6 million tonnes of it that is produced each year, is an enormous problem globally. Bleakly, it’s just one of the ways that audio contributes to the climate crisis. At Audio Collaborative 2022, industry heads were striving to shine a light on the current picture of sustainability within audio.  

Althea Ricketts from Shure delivered a presentation ‘Sustainability... What’s in it for the Audio Industry?’ exploring the work that’s left to do in future-proofing audio. The panel ‘Sounding Out on Sustainability’ expanded these ideas, broaching bold new avenues through which we can make audio greener. Moderator Chris Carey (Opinium) posed questions to Ricketts, Andy Dowell (MQA), and Dom Robinson (Greening of Streaming). 

The Environmental Problem with Audio 

One of the streaming industry’s core challenges is that its impact skirts largely under the radar. Being confined to the digital, streaming can appear environmentally benign. No physical copies are made, no waste is produced, no obvious issues present themselves. 

During the panel on sustainability, Robinson was quick to point out the true impact of streaming.  

‘The streaming industry actually uses about 1-2% of the world’s energy. To give a sense of scale, that’s about as much as the aviation industry,’ said Robinson. ‘You don’t read about that in the press,’ remarked Carey. 

It’s true – while we hear about the damage caused by the transportation and agricultural industries, audio often goes overlooked. But it’s a huge problem that requires industry heads to come together to address it. And streaming is just the start. 

E-waste, discarded electronic equipment, is the other mammoth issue faced by the industry. Ricketts hammered home the sheer scale of the problem in her presentation. ‘It keeps me up at night,’ Ricketts said, and it’s easy to see why. 

How is the Audio Industry Combatting Waste? 

While these stats paint a dismal picture of the industry’s sustainability practices, there are (thankfully) some important initiatives underway. Rickett’s highlighted numerous frontrunners in her presentation. Green Peace’s Guide to Greener Electronics identifies what work needs to be done to create a greener industry. To move forward, we need to understand the true scale of the problem at hand – and Green Peace’s audio electronics guide helps address that.  

Identified within that guide as a leader in sustainable audio is tech-giant Apple. One of their green initiatives is the robot, Daisy, which can recycle 1.2 million iPhones per year. Apple understands that the key flaw in its production system is that it has a high turn-around. To address this, a fast-paced solution that can be applied on a mass scale was needed. Daisy the robot does just that. 

External regulations come largely from the EU. Ricketts identified the EU as leading the charge in waste management, with environmental regulations placed on anyone conducting business with any EU company. The industry is making progress, change is certainly happening, but the climate crisis will stop for no one. What more can be done? 

Consumer Choice is Crucial to Progress 

A degree of practicality is needed. Designing products with sustainability in mind is the first step to creating a greener consumer cycle. ‘It’s unlikely that people will change their habits overnight,’ said Dowell, but the industry can provide solutions that place green products in the hands of the consumer. It’s the producers’ responsibility, first and foremost, to provide a responsible service. 

That’s not to say there’s no room for consumer choice. Robinson placed a particular emphasis on energy conservation during passive consumption. Music playing in the background, or a football match streamed on multiple screens at a pub, rarely requires the full HD experience, said Robinson. Optimising services to adjust to passive viewing is crucial to creating more sustainable consumption practices. But key to this is retaining quality when it’s needed.  

‘Let the consumer have the ‘gold button’ of choice,’ said Robinson, ‘so that they can watch the Lord of the Rings in HDR or listen to Stravinsky at 5000 kilobits per second if they so choose.’ 

Collaboration is Key to a Sustainable Future 

With each panellist boasting a unique area of expertise, the solutions discussed were as diverse as they were innovative. But the idea that unified the panel was an emphasis on collaboration. 

‘This is one instance where you need to collaborate with your competitors. We need to focus on the whole rather than the self,’ said Althea Ricketts.  

‘There’s been a naivety and a degree of inward focus,’ said Dom Robinson. ‘The key challenge is to think systemically across the whole chain. 

‘If you’re helping a competitor get up to speed in this area, you’re not hurting yourself,’ said Andy Dowell. 

The industry has a lot to answer for, but conversations like these shine a light on the important work already underway. If Audio Collaborative highlighted one thing, it’s that sustainability must be at the heart of the industry.  

A spirit of collaboration and a sharing of resources is needed. Sign up here to receive access to the full video of the ‘Sounding Out on Sustainability’ panel when it’s released. 

Date Published:

Olivia Lowden

About the author

Olivia Lowden

Olivia Lowden is responsible for the long-form content, press, and partnerships at Futuresource. Prior to her career at Futuresource, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, demonstrative of her lifelong love of words.

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