sustainable smartwatch

Are The Benefits Of Smartwatches Worth Their Human, Environmental And Data Privacy Risks?

André Gonçalves

André Gonçalves - Editor & Head Of English Market

After studying and working in HR, André studied sustainability management at Lisbon's School Of Economics & Management. He is responsible for the English speaking market of Youmatter since 2018.

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Should you get a smartwatch? What are the main benefits of owning a smartwatch? And what about its negative impacts? Do smartwatches negatively impact the environment or are they sustainable? Let’s get a more complete picture of this issue.

Smartwatches In The World Of Smart Gadgets: From The Past To The Future

smartwatch revolution

Steve Jobs. Few people would disagree the former CEO of Apple was the pioneer and of the main figures behind the start of the smart movement. Nonetheless, the whole idea of a smartphone started being conceptualized some years before, as Reid pertinently puts it.

The fact is that the first smartphone as we know it today was launched by Jobs in 2007 at the unquestionably successful iPhone keynote presentation. At that time, the great revelations of a screen keyboard or a browser just like the one used in computers fitting in people’s pockets were seen as incredibly revolutionary.

However, today, these successes are the new normal. Cellphones gave room to smartphones, and the app-world slowly started changing the way we shop (online), travel (using maps), interact (often texting and using video calls rather than meeting in person) or listen to music (anyone old enough remembers walkmans?). Among many other services smartphones provide, they also opened new doors to the latest trend in the smart market: the smartwatch.

Taking a step back to look at history, it’s not that smartwatches are something absolutely new. Sure, brands like Samsung, Apple, Garmin, FitBit or Huawei are the main players in the market today and are taking them to another level. But early models performing elementary tasks like digital time telling or calculations, like Pulsar, Seiko’s RC1000 or the Timex Datalink, have once walked people’s wrists during the mid-late 20th century. Back to the present, let’s take a look at what today’s smartwatches are able to do.

Two Great Benefits Of Smartwatches

Smartwatches Allow A Better Track Of Our Health

smartwatch health

Smartphones already do a decent job at tracking steps, physical activity or sleeping periods. But smartwatches, due to constant skin contact, are able to go one step further. So if some of the most recent models are able to measure heartbeats and calories, among the latest versions there are some that can perform ESGs (electrocardiograms) or complement blood pressure measurements.

Moreover, smartwatches can also track sleeping habits and co-work with apps to set a morning alarm for you to wake up at the time when you’re not at a deep sleep phase – finding the easiest time for you to get out of bed. A smartwatch is also a good reminder as it encourages you to take a minute to be more mindful and invest in long breaths that to bring back your serenity and attention to the present moment. They can also warn that you should stand up after sitting for a long period or that in order to fulfill your daily moving goal, you still need to exercise for 15 more minutes.

Smartwatches that connect with smartphones can also easily manage eating habits. By introducing what meals you’re having and estimating portions, they can calculate your calories and tell you whether you are in calorie debit or credit. In the end, exercising, managing and having balanced diets and good sleep are all important for well-being.

Smartwatches Can Increase Productivity

Smartwatches also allow you to be more productive. Virtual assistants that respond to voice commands (usually connected to smartphones) make it possible to get things done without much fuss or distraction, even if your hands are busy. So if you’re working hard to meet a deadline and there’s not much time to go out for lunch, you can quickly turn your wrist ask your virtual assistance what you want to eat and from where you want it – and some Ubereats driver will take it directly to your office.

Music, that can be controlled from a smartwatch, can also help to focus. Just like notifications coming from a well-managed calendar can make sure we’re doers and warn us it’s about time we switch to a different task. And because some smartwatches work with other apps developed by third-parties, tools like skype, slack, signal or WhatsApp, you can get updated with work even if you’re on the go. Just to carefully choose which apps you really need to use as third-party apps can spend up to 4x times battery than built-in apps.

The Hidden Impacts And Risks Of Smartwatches

The Environmental Impact Of Smartwatches

ewaste smartwatches

Like almost everything, smartwatches aren’t a fairytale. And the truth is: they come at a cost (like all electronic devices). Despite the fact that we often see these brands well-positioned in corporate reputation rankings that mirror how people see brands, the fact is that we live in a very complex and demanding world.

So it surely isn’t easy for ordinary, full time employed people with a family and active hobbies to keep track of what’s behind the scenes. And that’s also why youmatter is here: to give you the keys to understand the world’s complexity and take positive action at and individual and collective scale.

The costs of smartwatches are often hidden behind all their (indeed) remarkable, constantly advertised, functionalities. That’s why it’s important that we follow their lifecycle (all the processes they go over since their raw materials are extracted until they get discarded and what happens after) to better understand their impact.

As you’re most likely aware, smartwatches are made of (often rare) earth minerals that are especially used in displays and batteries. And the extraction of these minerals can be polluting and resource depleting – as we’ve highlighted in our are electric cars really sustainable piece considering lithium-ion batteries. Quickly overlooking the impact at this stage, the fact is that depending on the mining method used, among which surface mining is the one most frequently used, the degree of impact on the surrounding landscape and environment varies. Plus, the machines, excavators, and tractors used by workers, as well as their means of transport to the site, are also polluting.

After being extracted, these minerals go over chemical processes so they get filtrated and separated. As a by-product, the water used, that’s now contaminated, might, if it’s not managed properly by mining companies, be very harmful if it “escapes” to the surrounding ecosystems. Then they get to be transported to be assembled and then transported again to selling points.

We then buy them and use them, charge them with electricity from the grid and then the unexpected happens: the smartwatch’s display breaks, some button stops working, water gets in… And as the manufacturing brands often hold the exclusivity to repair the devices they’ve manufactured, under the argument that they need to protect their intellectual property, they often charge high prices making it way more appealing and financially wise to buy the latest versions available.

The result is that a lot of e-waste. In fact, according to the UN, out of 50 million tonnes of electronical and electrical waste created every year, only 20% is recycled.

Smartwatches Can Bring Human And Productivity Costs

smartwatch distraction

Besides environmental impacts, smartwatches also impact the way people interact and connect with one another. The truth is, with smartwatches connected to our smartphones, there’s a real risk of getting overwhelmed with notifications. This can happen as we are working and a WhatsApp group message distracts us. Or when we are taking a coffee with friend we barely hang-out with and someone texts or call and grabs takes our attention away from this friend.

This switching attention side effect of notifications, messages, emails or calls has a double impact. On one hand, if you are talking to a friend or in a team meeting and you turn your attention into something else, this can send a signal (often at an unconscious level) that the people around you are not so important as you are not prioritizing them.

On the other hand, when it comes to productivity, a temporary shift in attention from one task to another can increase the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, according to HRB. We’ve seen above that smartwatches and productivity walked hand in hand, but it turns out they can be enemies too. The trick is: use the do not disturb mode wisely and check our 5 Tips To Boost Your Productivity & Well-Being piece.

The Data Smartwatches Collect: Where Is It Going To?

Displays allow you to see how much calories you’ve burned in your Monday morning run. For how long your Tuesday tennis class lasted for. How your sleeping cycles on Wednesday were. How your menstrual cycle was on Thursday. Or how your heart was accelerated during the 3-4 pm meeting you had with investors last Friday.

You can check all this and data on your screen. And not just from the past week, but from one year ago too. The point is: all this data is stored in a data center somewhere. And if you can access it, so can the company providing you these services. The question is – should you trust that these companies are handling your data with privacy and that no security bridges will happen?

And once AI analyses all our data and starts understanding us better than we do ourselves, what risks can this bring? Once the decision of providing someone with health insurance comes (even if only partially) from AI as the result of a combination of algorithms too complex for humans do understand- will all the benefits be worth it? If consumer product companies get the data from our daily routines and create the perfect ad personalized just for us, how worried should we be?

Summing Up: Are Smartwatches A Good Idea And How Can Their Impact Be Reduced?

smartwatch sustainable

In the end, smartwatches are useful under the perspective of feeling good on the present today. Tracking your progress and qualitatively ensuring you are exercising under the right pace, having enough quality speed and a balanced diet surely allows making progress and finding the best version of ourselves. Plus, if used right, they can also foster productivity.

But being aware that smartwatches have downsides too – such as risks with storing your data, people getting obsessed with achieving certain goals or environmental impacts – it’s important too. Because by understanding better the world’s complexity and being aware of what we should avoid and why leaves us better equipped to individually and collectively act more sustainably – and teach and inspire others to act responsibly too.

So remember to use smartwatches for longer periods – and do your part in the demand-supply economic system. For this, it helps to keep their battery cycle between 20%-90% Also, try to get to good insurance deals and buying from brands that make repairing accessible and are transparent about the lifecycle of their smartwatches. And buy second-hand too. These are perhaps ideas that had not thought about until now. But know that you know about them and their impact, you hold the keys to set an example on sustainable consumption.

Image credits to Shutterstock on young, recycling, meeting, time, watch and vintage

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