With the pace of innovation ever increasing, technology can feel antiquated fast. Consumers, as well as businesses, have become accustomed to upgrading devices regularly and discarding "outdated" tech. But what happens to last year's laptops, mobile phones, and tech accessories?

According to the United Nations, the world produces more than 50 million tons of electronic waste per year. Much like the fashion industry has had to come to terms with the dark side of so-called "fast fashion" -- cheap, environmentally damaging clothing created quickly to mimic runway trends -- the tech industry must reckon with the environmental implications of "fast tech."

Whether knowingly or unknowingly, some tech companies are feeding into the idea of planned obsolescence -- creating less-durable products for the sake of introducing new ones on a regular basis. There is a better way, and it lies in the circular economy.

Unlike the linear economy, in which companies mine natural resources to make products that are designed to be discarded, the circular economy closes the loop. Materials and products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, and recyclable, thereby extending product life cycles and curbing waste. This approach can make a tremendous impact on the environment. A study published in Science found that plastic use can be reduced by nearly 80 percent in the next 20 years, in part by adopting circular economy practices across the supply chain.

Circular Economy Benefits, and Barriers

While companies in various sectors can reduce waste by adopting a circular economy model, tech companies have a significant opportunity to create change by rethinking product design and inspiring consumers to expect more from their devices. But doing so is not simple. Sustainable processes and materials typically cost more than those used in a linear economy approach. Furthermore, adopting circular economy practices requires operational changes as well as the subject matter expertise to implement them correctly. Product design can also be a barrier.

Embracing circular economy practices requires tech companies to rethink every aspect of product design. While it may not be easy, improvement is possible -- and pivotal to saving the planet. Lenovo, a global technology company, has increased the sustainability of its packaging and products. Lenovo integrates sustainable materials as broadly as possible and uses closed-loop post-consumer recycled content in more than 200 products. By fiscal year (FY) 2025-26, the company will use post-consumer recycled (PCC) materials in 100 percent of PC products, 90 percent of PC plastic packaging, and 60 percent of smartphone packaging. These efforts breathe new life into materials that might otherwise end up in landfills. Lenovo has also designed its packaging to use more sustainable materials, like bamboo and sugar cane, and has created a more sustainable shipping method for servers that reduces consumption of packaging materials by assembling the servers before shipping.

Upstream Innovation: Starting With the Source

To make an impact, more tech companies can focus on designing long-lasting products from the outset. On average, a smartphone contains 35 different materials, many of which are mined from the earth. By creating consumer products with a longer lifespan, the tech industry can slow down on sourcing materials deemed harmful for the environment and the emissions created while sourcing them.

A particularly problematic material is plastic. In order to maintain quality standards, there are limited opportunities to recycle plastic. Not all plastics can be recycled for all purposes. The tech industry -- as well as other sectors -- needs materials that can be recycled upstream. Lenovo has chosen to focus on integrating closed-loop recycled content (plastics from discarded electronics) to maximize the amount of recycled plastic that can be integrated into products.

Creating new sustainable materials is an example of upstream innovation, or solving the cause of a problem, heading off the problem itself. For example, preventing waste in the first place limits the need to find clever ways to include it in the circular economy. Upstream innovation and the circular economy in general represent commercial opportunities and environmental benefits for companies. Customers are increasingly aware of the dangers of plastic pollution, and many will look favorably on brands that deliver sustainable solutions.

In addition to earning consumer trust and advancing sustainability programs, adopting circular economy practices may help spark positive societal changes -- a shift away from the "throw-away" culture and "fast tech" movement toward a more sustainable approach to product design and continued tech innovation. Consumers, including business-to-business (B2B) product buyers, may come to demand more from tech suppliers, leaving companies no choice but to focus on creating more sustainable and circular practices.

Lenovo's vision is to provide smarter technology that builds a brighter, more sustainable future. To learn more about Lenovo's sustainability efforts and circular economy leadership, visit Lenovo StoryHub.