If you are in the market for a new speaker and want something high quality, I would reach for this one as it seems to be the most sustainable of all the common portable bluetooth speakers. The JBL Flip 5 eco has a long battery life, is waterproof, and has the same great sound JBL is known for. The bar in the speaker market is not very high when it comes to sustainability, but I think this is a step in the right direction as JBL is a key player in the audio industry and may influence other companies. So if consumers rally around the sustainable option, they may see sustainability as something valuable to pursue. In my opinion, the fact that JBL made a new speaker out of 90% recycled plastics shows that this company only thinks of sustainability as a marketing ploy to improve sales with eco-conscious consumers. If they cared about sustainability, they could have chosen to discontinue production of the JBL Flip 5 which is the exact same speaker just without the 90% recycled plastics. If they cared about sustainability, they could choose to manufacture all of their portable bluetooth speakers with 90% recycled plastics. If they cared about sustainability, they would not outsource all manufacturing to Mexico, China, and Hungary. This is a form of greenwashing; they tout this product as sustainable when most other parts of the company are not sustainable. I admit that these are large requests for a company and I am grateful they used recycled plastics and eco-friendly packaging, but the planet deserves more action.
The JBL Flip 5 Eco is JBL’s newest addition to their line up of portable bluetooth speakers. They created this speaker to celebrate Earth Day 2020 and tout that the speaker is made from 90% recycled plastics. Harman, the parent company of JBL, also mentions on their website that the speakers “are packaged in eco-friendly packaging, including a protective case made of biodegradable materials”. One of the problems I see here is that they do not make mention of whether the recycled plastics are pre-consumer or post-consumer recycled materials and this is an important distinction that I was surprised to not have found anywhere on Harman’s website when discussing the sustainability of the speaker. Pre-consumer recycled materials, at a glance, refer to diverting waste materials that spawn during the manufacture of products towards something of value. For example, if you make a consumer product out of tin and scraps are produced, you can make the tin scraps into wind chimes instead of throwing it away. The key here is that you already had the material to begin with so it is better to use it rather than throw it away. Post consumer recycled materials look like me giving my old iPhone to Apple for them to repurpose the metal in making a new iPhone. Post consumer recycling is more important for sustainability because this makes the life cycle of a product circular instead of linear which helps to curb over-consumption of resources. Overall, these two measures are a very considerable step in the right direction for the future of consumer goods. While the JBL Flip 5 Eco does not alleviate the environmental problems common to every portable bluetooth speaker (lithium-ion batteries and mining of metals used for product functionality), it does appear to help reduce the amount of plastics being circulated.
JBL, a U.S. based company, outsources production of all their products to facilities in Mexico, Hungary, and China. More on the impact of outsourcing can be found in the next section. They worked closely with “top material suppliers and manufacturers around the globe” to secure materials and production for this speaker but their lack of transparency implies to me that the statement has no depth. I watched a video (linked in the sources titled “Bluetooth Speaker Factory”) that shows the assembly process for making bluetooth speakers. While I can not confirm that this is how JBL makes their speakers, it is how competitor Bose makes their speakers (they show a Bose speaker made at the facility). It shows an assembly line where people have an individual task that they complete and pass the product to the next person to add their task and eventually this creates the final product. There is no reason other than profit for them to outsource these jobs to factories in other countries, and as discussed in the next section this is not sustainable. Producing further away from the U.S. increases the distance that the speaker must travel to get to the consumer, which means greater transportation related emissions. What is sustainable about how these speakers are made is that they appear to have a long life span which makes it so that consumers do not have to buy new speakers as often.
JBL is one of the biggest audio brands on the planet, manufacturing products such as loudspeakers and headphones. JBL is owned by Harman, which was acquired by Samsung Technology Co. in 2016. According to the LA Times, Samsung Chief Executive Oh-Hyun Kwon spoke of the deep respect he has for Harman’s CEO and their senior level management after shedding hundreds of jobs by moving out of their high-cost production facilities to lower-cost ones and reporting a 6% increase in net income. Around 2016, JBL had been moving their manufacturing processes out of the U.S. to facilities in Mexico because it is cheaper. Similarly, they have production facilities in China and in Hungary. Because JBL is a large company that produces a high volume of products year round, this impacts sustainability in a large way. JBL can keep costs low by outsourcing to these countries because they are hiring in emerging markets where standards of living are lower, which lowers the cost of goods shipped back to the U.S.. With sustainability, we all have to be at a place where we can make sustainable decisions for future benefit and JBL, through outsourcing in such a large way, is actively preventing that from happening. JBL has the resources, especially capital, to do much better in terms of sustainability than they are doing now.
* Video of speaker production facility: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOIsaIHHg_M
* Information about outsourcing: https://www.thebalance.com/how-outsourcing-jobs-affects-the-u-s-economy-3306279