article / 21 June 2023

Sustained Effort: The Environmentalist’s Dilemma

In this article from Jacinta Plucinski & Akiba of Freaklabs, they share advice on organising your thoughts around building short-term and long-term sustainability considerations into your conservation technology work.

Creative thinking can be a conservationist technologist’s greatest tool for finding new solutions to pressing challenges. In this article, Jacinta Plucinski and Akiba of Freaklabs discuss how to organise your thoughts around a topic as vast and overwhelming as sustainability in the conservation tech field.

The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: our sustainable technology journey

By Jacinta Plucinski & Akiba

The Enviromentalist’s Dilemma is the title of a book by journalist Arno Kopecky. In it, Kopecky discusses the contradiction that whilst humanity’s progress overall is trending towards improvement, it is coinciding with environmental degradation on a scale we’ve never seen. “How do we reconcile this paradox,” he asks?

How do we indeed?

Our Conservation Technology Paradox

For us at Freaklabs, we face a similarly stark paradox. We are hardware developers and manufacturers working with ecologists to create tools to help understand, conserve and regenerate the environment. This includes real-time monitoring systems for soil, ABRs modules for camera traps to understand predator/prey behaviour or deter pests, and tracking tags to help first responders locate whales tangled in fishing nets.

These tools are giving us greater understanding and insight into how our world works, enabling us to measure the effectiveness of restoration practices and to increase the impact of our efforts. Yet they rely upon extractive materials, resource-intensive manufacturing processes, and global infrastructure that contributes to the very problem of environmental degradation in the first place. 

Materials such as epoxy resin for the PCB is made from petroleum and copper for the electrical traces are mined with a supply chain that’s difficult to trace. Water and power-hungry manufacturing processes are used for the PCB fabrication, enclosures, speakers, sensors, cables … the list goes on. Sea or air freight that ships the devices globally rely on petroleum for fuel. And this is before the devices even get into the field, where broken equipment or used batteries start to pile up.

When we contemplate sustainability in conservation technology and stare deeply into the muck, the sheer scale of the problem can be depressing and become paralysing.

It would be easy for us to keep our faces turned towards the light, to focus on the benefits our technology brings – the metrics, the insights, the prevention and the restoration “wins,” but without also acknowledging the harmful impacts of what we do, it can quickly turn into unintended greenwashing.

It would be easy for us to keep our faces turned towards the light, to focus on the benefits our technology brings – the metrics, the insights, the prevention and the restoration “wins,” but without also acknowledging the harmful impacts of what we do, it can quickly turn into unintended greenwashing.

So we end up back to Kopecky’s question: how can we, as developers and users of conservation technology, navigate this “moral minefield?”

Our Approach Towards Sustainability - with Quotes!

Rather than throw up our hands, grab a martini, and watch from the deck as the ship we’re all in sinks, we’ve developed a short step-by-step process, and turned to tried-and-true quotes to keep us focused on the bigger picture. By putting things in perspective like this, we can have hope that our actions towards sustainability make a difference.

1) Sustainability Audit:  “Nothing can be Changed until it is Faced” and “Think Global, Act Local.”

Our sustainability audit is a process of going through each business element and activity to identify its positive and negative impacts. The audit covers activities such as complete product development, manufacturing, supply chain, operations, field deployments, office activities, and so on. 

It began as informal discussions on ways to reduce used batteries in the field, why boxes were often too big for what was being shipped and filled with unrecyclable padding, or how to maximise the life cycle of a product. As we’ve expanded, we’ve formalised it into a more structured review that we conduct each year as a way to commit to, and measure, lasting changes. 

The audit is a straightforward but overwhelming exercise, and it’s easy for us to feel disheartened.

Which is why we rely on the quote “nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This is actually a quote by James Baldwin and it keeps us honest. We need to eyeball our impact before we can improve it. We’re also mindful that our business is global, with field projects and devices deployed worldwide, so the local actions we take have an impact in many countries. This is why Patrick Gedde’s Think Global, Act Local principle along with sustainability has become another business and technology metric, just like time, cost, and expertise.

2) Identify Immediate, Medium and Long-Term Priorities: “Pick Your Battles” and “Divide and Conquer”

When we consider all that needs to be done, “pick your battles” and “divide and conquer” come in.

Within each section of the audit, we identify areas where we can take direct action, where we have influence, or where it’s beyond our capability at the moment. We then identify what we can implement with relative ease, what will require procedural or behavioural change or input from others, and what significant changes we need to start building towards for the long term.

One example is printed circuit boards. Previously we were exploring sustainable or biodegradable printed circuit boards made using alternative materials such as paper, a project we were collaborating on with Jie Qi, a paper engineering expert. Unfortunately, the state of circuit board technology doesn’t allow affordable or sustainable solutions at the moment; however, we’re still looking for options to test out.

On a different note, we were concerned about shipping packages over long distances, especially for small orders. This both adds cost to end users and creates a horrible carbon footprint. For devices like Boombox, we’re now in a position where we can work with fullfilment houses to ship one large batch to them and have them distribute devices regionally. Along with business improvements like lower shipping costs and quicker transit times, it also removes the need for each small package to individually travel by air to its destination.

We also leverage available programs and tools such as B-Corp’s free impact assessment or Patagonia’s approach to supply chain transparency to help guide us in how we approach larger, more complex issues. We don’t want to recreate the wheel, so we look to other organisations to see how they’re approaching these issues, and adapt or port over what can work for us. Where there are options, we’ll support businesses that have the same commitment to improving their business practises, even if they’re more expensive. We’re conscious we can’t fix everything ourselves, but if we “divide and conquer,” we can go further.

3) Implementation: “Perfect is the Enemy of Good Better” and “Anything Worthwhile Takes Time”

Sometimes it feels like we’re steering the slow-moving Titanic, trying to avoid the environmental disaster iceberg that’s clearly on the horizon. But if we focus too much on that, we’ll be paralysed. That’s where “perfect is the enemy of better” comes in. We know we won’t get it perfect the first time out, but we’re trying to consistently improve our processes one piece at a time. It’s a game of centimetres (inches for US people) and we just crawl forward centimetre by centimetre until we make progress. It’s also why the sustainability audit is so important. It allows us to track our progress and see that, although we may not feel the effects of the changes immediately, it does make a difference in the long run.

Which leads nicely into the final quote, “anything worthwhile takes time.” Setting up local manufacturing, a trade-in scheme, migrating to rechargeable batteries, reducing our business carbon footprint, building supply chain transparency, and sourcing from equitable suppliers all requires time and effort that takes years. In some cases, whilst reducing the environmental impact on one hand, an improvement raises social or environmental challenges on the other. For example, local manufacturing takes time, money, and resources to set up as it requires materials, equipment, expertise, training, and so on. Whilst migrating to rechargeable batteries saves on battery waste, in some countries sourcing rechargeable lithium-ion batteries is costly, import is difficult, or they’re stolen, which means the equipment can’t be used. Making more sustainable decisions often means balancing all these trade-offs between long-term and immediate needs.


Our current focus is on device development and life cycle, logistics, and ewaste.  So we’ve implemented some strategies that aren’t necessarily cost or labour efficient, but are more sustainably efficient. These include:

Trade-In Program - The informal product life cycle discussions resulted in us implementing a trade-in upgrade program for our designs. This was trickier than we expected. For Boombox, we standardised on our enclosure and accessories so they could all be reused over the life cycle of the product (unless stomped by an elephant or eaten by a hyena). The hardware upgrade only requires a change in the circuit board, and we roll all the feedback from field deployments and updates into one annual circuit board upgrade. 

However, the problem with our enclosures is that the standard screw mounts are made of plastic, so the circuit board can’t be removed without threading the mounts. Instead, we have to manually add brass-threaded inserts. To do this, we purchased a special tool that could both heat and install them. Once inserted, it allows the circuit boards to be easily installed or removed multiple times, allowing for simple hardware upgrades over time.

To manage receiving the old boards and recycling components, we then invested in desoldering equipment, along with building infrastructure and processes for dealing with and stripping returned boards efficiently. It turned into quite a project!

Batteries - The battery waste discussions resulting from our sustainability audit resulted in us committing to removing disposable batteries from all our internal projects, moving our consulting clients towards rechargeable batteries, and building up the electronics infrastructure to house, manage, measure, and charge lots of batteries, which we’ve done. We’ve also added the option to use rechargeable batteries to publicly available devices such as BoomBox. Depending on availability, people are now able to use either option. 

Low Inventory - To prevent excess stock and waste, we don’t do big production runs, as any unsold inventory becomes scrap in some form. We are trialling batch runs of devices and cautiously increasing the quantities in each batch based on demand, which helps us to be sure that we can sell what we produce. Although we salvage whatever we can, it’s best to make sure we use as much of what we make as possible. 

Shipping - We receive many, many packages due to the sheer amount of parts we have to stock to maintain designs. In response, we recycle as much of the packing materials as we can. We have separate boxes to sort our collected packing materials into, with spots for small bubble wrap (popping them is so fun!), big bubble wrap, paper, air cushions, and styrofoam peanuts. When we ship, we choose the packing material that best suits the order and use the recycled materials first before dipping into our own packing material supply.

Packing materials are one of the most wasteful resources we use since they’re only used for the duration of a trip and have no real functionality beyond that. With that in mind, we try to manage the packing materials we receive from suppliers efficiently and reuse it as much as possible. 

Everything we’ve discussed here is merely a first step for us. There’s much more we can do here to improve our own sustainability and find solutions for others in our field - but the first step is just as important as any other.

There’s much more we can do here to improve our own sustainability and find solutions for others in our field - but the first step is just as important as any other.

We know what we’re doing has both a positive and a detrimental impact on the environment. By systematically addressing the detrimental aspects and implementing changes within our means, we’re hoping we’re headed in the right direction and that all these micro-effects lead to a greater positive environmental impact. 

In the words of Lao-Tzu, “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” We’ve started our journey, and we hope you’ll join us along the way.

Download the Sustained Effort Series

This article is from our latest editorial series, Sustained Effort: Community Thoughts on Conservation Tech Sustainability

Our series Sustained Effort brings together conservation tech users and makers to share their own perspectives on this topic. Through these case studies, we'll consider the current challenges of working sustainably in our field, but more importantly, how we can all take realistic, practical, and effective steps toward not only lessening our negative impact right now, but discovering larger steps toward the longterm, system-wide change needed to make conservation technology truly sustainable for our planet.

The entire Sustained Effort series is now available to download here on WILDLABS.

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