The quest for ethical technology

Sarah Gane talks to Lush R&D team leader, Adam Goswell, about the company’s commitment to developing an ethically-sourced tablet and the hope this will, eventually, inspire others to do the same

You may have already heard that Lush is currently researching the possibility of building its own handheld device. As a company, we care about where stuff comes from – whether it’s finding fresh ingredients for our cosmetics or sourcing ethical technology for our stores and offices, it’s all important.

The production (and disposal) of smartphones and tablets often means toxic components, conflict minerals, and reported abuse of workers’ rights. While companies such as Closing the Loop and Fairphone have been doing some great work in these areas, ethical options are pretty much non-existent when it comes to tablets. But since we use these devices in Lush stores, fully equipped with open-source software, we wanted to see if we could try to change that.

Starting at the source

The first part of the process started back in November last year when the Lush Tech R&D team headed out to Shenzhen. Dubbed the Silicon Valley of hardware, this Chinese city is world famous. “It’s full of factories, markets, startups and established companies all making electronics of every type and scale you could possibly imagine,” explains Lush Tech R&D Adam Goswell. Yet, sadly it was all an illusion of choice: ethical, off-the-shelf options, just didn’t exist.

Not to be deterred, the team returned to Lush HQ to carry out further research and continue making and strengthening industry connections. “We want to know exactly where a device has come from; who’s made it and what they’ve used to make it,” Adam explains. “We could actually get a tablet made tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be ethical. To get a more ethical one is going to take a bit longer.”

This is a slow and steady process, and for good reason: with so many factories involved in the production of technology, each with their own set of criteria, as well as muddled supply chains, it takes a lot of work to get to the truth of the production and sourcing of a device’s component ingredients.

What the team do know is that, for its first iteration, the Lush Tablet is likely to be an off-the-shelf device with ethical modifications.

“A lot of companies go to China, see an off-the-shelf device that has no branding, brand it with their own brand and resell it in the West, or wherever they are in the world,” explains Adam. Having this as a starting point means that the team can then get stuck into tracing the source of these components. “We want to know where every single component of that tablet is coming from but that’s the tricky bit because tablets are made up of thousands of ‘ingredients’, if you like, and it’s those ingredients we’re interested in.”

While the team know that creating an entirely ethical tablet isn’t possible (just yet), what they can do is create something that can be gradually improved upon. Adam explains: “We’re looking at targeting maybe the top 20 biggest components in the device: the battery, the antennae, the case, the screen – those kind of things – which is what Fairphone did. We’ll then be targeting those components and tracing them back to a source, source being the mine or wherever the component has come from.”

Smoke and mirrors

Fast-forward to the present day and the Lush R&D team has just returned from their second trip to Shenzhen and Suzhou. There, they met with factories who could assemble the devices, but this was no easy task: “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on, so you have to ask a lot of difficult questions. You have to actually, physically see, so a lot of the times we would ask to go onto the factory floor, look at the workers, look at the conditions, ask about the shifts, ask about how they’re paid; all the questions we’d normally ask,” says Adam.

Whilst the R&D team’s careful, methodical research and communication continues behind the scenes, Adam expects devices to be ready in around six to nine months’ time. That being said, introducing the device itself will be a staged process. Since it would be counterproductive to create unnecessary electronic waste, new devices will be rolled out as and when they are needed, with end-of-life tech being recycled using verified e-waste experts.

“We’re doing a tablet, so we’ve probably chosen the hardest thing to do, but I think that eventually, we’ll end up building out our own ethical buying policy based on what we’ve learnt from this. It is a big learning process,” admits Adam. “It’s worth noting that we have the beginnings of an ethical policy – and that’s the top level of what we’re trying to do – but by doing this project we’ve got the basis of how to build ethical electronics.”

Looking forward, since Lush’s software is open-source, there’s also a possibility of knowledge being shared on the hardware side of things.

“I think if you can set an example and a blueprint or the beginnings of that to the rest of the industry then why not?” says Adam. “I’d love to tell more stories about this because a lot of what we learnt came directly from other people’s stories which were what inspired us to get going. Hopefully, we can, in turn, inspire and teach others how to do this and we might then be able to influence other markets as well.”

Closing the Loop and Fairphone will be speaking at the Lush Showcase 2018. Watch it on the Lush Player.

Sarah Gane is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based in the UK .

It takes a lot of work to get to the truth of the production and sourcing of a device’s component ingredients