When I returned home from college over quarantine and had to share a wall with my two little sisters, noise-cancelling headphones became my much-needed safe haven. The best feature of the Beats Studio 3 Wireless Headphones is that they consistently adapt to the environment, calibrating sound quality and volume to block external noises—even the most boisterous sounds of my sister, Luna, when she took on an opera phase. However, upon researching the Beats by Dre company, there is a complete lack of transparency with regards to the supply chain and material sourcing required to produce such high-tech headphones. Despite publicizing the benefits of their highly specialized Class 1 Bluetooth, Apple W1 chip and fast-fuel, rechargeable capacities, the company seems to conceal the serious details of their production and management processes. Perhaps, by only spotlighting the headphones’ active sound quality, Beats has successfully drowned out the real clatter and commotion of their unsustainable manufacturing operations.
The headphones are made out of mostly plastic, metal, electronics, and plush material. The main angular headpiece of the headphones are made from a single plastic mold with metalized mylar diaphragms within the ear cups. Aluminum and stainless steel make up the hinges and separators. Yet, much of these weighty metal parts are non-functional and are seemingly added to create a more premium, valuable feel to the mostly cheap plastic-based product. The ear cup cushions employ synthetic artificial leather with a fabric-base that is predominately polyester. It is important to note I had to pursue more external research over the exact materials used in the product as Beats did not disclose any specificities whatsoever. And yet, their choice to be vague with their exact compliments makes sense when you realize much of the materials are based in harmful, polluting energy chemicals and require energy-intensive (GHG), high-impact processes.
For instance, artificial leather utilizes synthetic polyester that is derived from oil and involves “double the energy of conventional cotton to produce.” It also releases toxic chemicals like carcinogens into the air and water and cannot be dyed or treated naturally. Along the same vein, the headphones’ rigid plastic, in most cases, calls for rubber or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) casting. Made from fossil fuels, PVC is one of the worst plastic materials, containing chemicals such as lead, phthalates, and cadmium that are toxic for human and environmental health. Its life cycle is also designed for ultimate disposal in landfills. Silicone, known for its reusability and versatility, encompasses the headband cushion of the product and is generally non-toxic and more long-lasting than plastic. Although silicone does not break down into harmful micro particles or emit toxic substances, it is difficult to be recycled. The Beats company purports to recycle any part of their device including the lithium-based battery through Apple’s recycling services. Regardless, I have a hard time accepting the plausibility of recycling most of their rather toxic materials.
The main company website discloses little to nothing surrounding their manufacturing processes and supply chains. The Beats by Dre Headquarters is located in Culver City, California; but, most of their factories and production facilities are located on a global-scale. The majority of their materials, including faux leather, microphones, chips, rubber, and plastics, mainly come from factories in China and Southeast Asia. Hence, there is a high GHG ratio in terms of the transportation costs and environmental externalities to ship products on an international level. Furthermore, the specific protocol and operational procedures are unclear, and there is little transparency over what international standards are required to uplift ethical and sustainable production. It is safe to say there are surely unfair and corrupt practices implements as investigators have found it takes only about $14 to build one headphone, and yet each is formally priced between $200 to $350 in most markets.
To build each headphone, the factory molds cheap plastic to encase microchip and battery components manufactured by Apple. The headphone parts are glued or snapped together with minimal screws and are configured under assembly-line based procedures. The artificial leather is textured with chemicals and dyes, and it is uncertain whether the international factories safely dispose of these toxic chemical mixtures or if they leak into the air and local water systems. Most polyester, plastics, and PVC are produced in China or Indonesia, where regulations to protect the environment, such as air and water protections, are negligent. These factories are run entirely on fossil fuels, and the company has not revealed any strategies or goals with relation to more sustainable energy or production alternatives.
Beats began in 2006 by Dr. Dre and Jimmy lovine. It used to be owned by a Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer, the HTC Corporation, which worked to supply materials and designs for Windows Mobile and Google Pixel Smartphones alike. Since 2014, Beats has been run by Apple. Apple has purported some ambitious sustainability goals, attempting to lower their overall carbon footprint. Nonetheless, Apple must be held accountable for its extensive energy and toxic material usage. Despite professing the repairability of their products, consumers are financially incentivized to buy new rather than repair or recycle their tech products. This ‘planned obsolescence’ clearly manifests in the about 50 million metric tonnes of electronic waste produced in 2019 alone, “of which only 20% was recycled.”
Overall, Beats and Apple should do more to mitigate the historic wastefulness of their supply chains and work toward a more transparent and ethically-protected manufacturing sphere. From doing this research, I am inspired to look into alternatives to mainstream headphones and find out how reclaimed wood, PVC free, and recycled materials could better supply our tech products. With the technology we have now, there is truly no reason we should have to compromise our musical safe havens with our earthly ones.