Eco tech user on bike

Eco tech is a rising industry sector which creates new innovations and inventions every day. There’s no question that the technological leaps provided by eco tech products allow for new ways of measuring and even controlling energy use and emissions, but do these products just feed our appetite for consumption? And how much to they really help, when you factor in the effects of their production?

Investigating eco tech

I’ve come up with three assessment tools to use to check whether eco tech does more harm than good.

1. Do you need it?

Nest eco tech thermostat
The Nest eco tech thermostat senses when you’re not home and sets the temperature to a predetermined level, warming/cooling your home as needed when its motion sensors detect your return. Image Credit: Nest.

This, above all else, should determine whether or not to buy an eco tech product, whether it’s a new app or a fancy self-timing indoor grow light. Do you need it? It’s a tough question to ask, especially for gadget junkies, but just because something labels itself as “green” doesn’t mean it will necessarily create a positive environmental effect in your life, nor that it will do so in a way you would have been unable to mimic with a low-cost, zero-gadget low tech solution.

Take the Nest thermostat, for example. It’s a product designed to automate your home heating and cooling systems to reduce energy use and optimize temperature settings. The thermostat senses when you’re not home and sets the temperature to a predetermined level, warming/cooling your home as needed when its motion sensors detect your return.

Nest provides an incredibly sleek tech package, but it’s also simply doing what our dads did for ages before it was invented. (Surely it wasn’t just my father who hovered near the thermostat, frantically adjusting it down by degrees and telling me to put on a sweater when I got cold?) For years, decades even, homeowners got into the habit of turning down the heat before sleeping or leaving for work and suffering the few minutes of frigid temperatures while it warmed up again upon being turned up upon their return. It’s hardly a laborious process, though it might be one you forget. To test your need for the Nest thermostat, for example, create a period of a month or two where you actively try to remember to do what Nest would, on your own. Track your energy consumption during this time via your heating or cooling bills and see if you can accomplish the same goals in the absence of eco tech – if so, you’ve saved yourself $250 to put towards a different eco-innovation instead.

Apply this question and similar tests to each eco tech product you are thinking of purchasing and ask yourself if the service it provides is needed, and if so, if it can be done by you at little inconvenience.

2. Does it work?

Man holding smartphone with program smart home - eco tech
This may seem like an incredibly silly question to ask, but ask it anyway. Does the eco tech device work? Image Credit: Denys Prykhodov / Shutterstock

This may seem like an incredibly silly question to ask, but ask it anyway. Does it work? Does this sleek piece of technology do what it claims to? How do you know? Have you read reviews and compared owner experiences and seen how it lasts?

When we think about eco tech we often become exposed to the same risks as we do when reading organic or natural on food products and substituting healthy in their place. Organic cheeses are no more a health food than conventional cheeses are, so don’t be fooled by the label. Similarly, the fact that something bills itself as eco-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean it is, nor that it is a good product, for that matter.

For better or for worse, the environment, climate change and waste have become increasingly trendy topics and corporations looking to increase sales are capitalizing on it. Pair this with the fact that the eco tech market is still developing, and you often run into situations where there is only one company creating the product you’re looking for, or one version of the product being made. This makes comparison shopping virtually impossible and shopping for just-released products means that there are often very few reviews to read and little information about product effectiveness or use experience.

Just remember that when shopping for eco tech, the same rules apply as when shopping for regular items: caveat emptor (buyer beware). Do your research, don’t be afraid to ask questions, source relevant statistics and even wait a few months to get more information on a product before committing to it.

3. How was it made? How will it be disposed of?

These two questions hit at the heart of the issue with Eco-tech, technology is inherently polluting. These futuristic looking devices have a very real effect on present-day pollution, in the mining of precious metals to create its xx to the toxic waste created by assembling computer parts like superconductors, technology takes a toll on the environment even when it’s end goal is to help it.

To understand if a particular piece of eco tech will generate a net-positive effect, consider how it’s made and how you will dispose of it after it’s done. A computer, for example, generates 80% of its energy footprint during its production, which means that simply making the computer uses more energy than the computer itself will during its entire working life span. And while electronics are increasingly recyclable, the recycling is often done by shipping e-waste overseas where protection and safety legislation is lax or non-existent, and electronics dismantlers are subject to horrific working conditions and terrible health risks.

If the product you’re looking at creates more pollution, waste, or energy expenditure than it can reasonably claim to save you over the course of its life, it’s not worth getting. You’re solving one problem but you may be unwittingly creating two more in the process.

This is where apps really shine – they’re virtual, not tangible, so their waste footprint is far smaller while still being effective at monitoring or altering eco-friendly behavior.

When it comes to climate change, waste and pollution, there are many who believe that technology will save us. Personally, I think they might be right. Nonetheless, don’t let the shiny packages and sleek metal casing of eco tech products fool you into buying something you don’t need or won’t use, or something which will do more harm than it will good.

Feature image credit: blackzheep / Shutterstock

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.