Sony’s WH-1000XM wireless noise headphones series have become increasingly trendy, especially among Gen Z’s. With the hype its predecessor, the WH-1000XM4, received on Tik Tok, many have their eyes on the WH-1000XM5 headphones, which were newly launched in May 2022 at a starting price of £380.
Sony has branded its newest set of wireless headphones as the “industry-leading noise-cancelling headphones”, with exceptional noise cancelling, audio, and call quality. In line with Sony’s Green Management 2025 environmental targets, recycled plastics and sustainable paper materials have also been incorporated into both the headphones and their packaging, unlike its previous lines of headphones. However, there is a lack of transparency and available information on the product’s manufacturing process and supply chains, which I have later realised is a common issue other headphone brands share - an industry transparency problem.
Overall, while Sony’s progress in incorporating sustainable materials into the product is praiseworthy, Sony must become more transparent in disclosing its manufacturing process to truly be the headphone industry’s leader. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a pair of good-quality wireless noise-cancelling headphones, I would still recommend checking out the Sony WH-1000XM5!
The majority of the materials as part of Sony’s WH1000XM5 headphones consist of synthetic leather, polythene, and ABS Plastics. Starting from the headband, it is completely covered in a new synthetic leather that also covers the memory-foam earpads. Compared with the WH1000XM previous headphones, the headband section now employs ABS plastic for its slides instead of metal bands. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a material formed by automobile parts in the US and Japan and is then recycled, refined and blended to create a new mix. ABS materials are typically non-biodegradable, but they are recyclable, which aligns with Sony’s design philosophy of “made to be remade”.
In particular, Sony has prided itself on the plastic-free packaging for the WH-1000XM5 and is instead made using recycled, sustainable materials developed especially for Sony. The product’s box adopts Sony’s proprietary sustainable paper, or what they call “Original Blended Material”, which is sustainable paper material made from bamboo, sugarcane fibres, and post-consumer recycled paper. Sony claims that changing its plastic packaging to paper will reduce its plastic content by 90%. In addition to the packaging, Sony has also made efforts to introduce recycled plastic into the body parts of the WH-1000XM5. Sony’s recycled plastic consists of more than 85% Recycled ABS and around 15% of additives. While the use of recycled ABS is relatively more sustainable than other types of plastic and is therefore praiseworthy, there is a lack of transparency in disclosing the type of additives used in its recycled plastic. Nevertheless, with Sony’s efforts to develop its sustainable paper for packaging and recycled plastic for this line of headphones, I argue that the WH-1000XM headphone series is on the right track to becoming more sustainable. Therefore, I believe that this section's rating of 1.5 planets is well deserved.
As of 2021, three factories focus on producing Sony headphones located in Malaysia and Japan. The headphone production factories in Malaysia will be shut down by 2022 and, instead, will be moved to streamline production. No other information has been disclosed about such a decision.
Regarding the process of the recycled materials used in the pair of headphones and its packaging, Sony only provides the overall manufacturing steps on how automobile parts are later turned into recycled materials. Unpigmented industrial scraps are first collected from automobile parts, which are then sorted into their individual parts (e.g., doorknobs etc.). Following this, processes of shredding, pelletisation and colouring are conducted. No further information about energy use, supply chain, or transportation is disclosed. Slightly better levels of transparency can be seen with regard to their “original blended material”, which discusses how their bamboo sugarcane fibres and post-consumer recycled paper are sourced in China and other parts of Asia. Perennial plants are harvested from short-growth plants “for lower environmental impact compared to plastics” and undergo stages of sapling, lopping, sorting, and a “CO2 absorption period”. While such processes are highlighted in a visibly pleasing way for consumers, it simply does not tell us enough.
Other than such information on their sustainable materials, nothing else has been disclosed about how the WH-1000XM5 headphones are made; thus, its manufacturing process has not been made clear. Sony’s annual sustainability report touches on the topic of responsible supply chains, but it only covers a vague process that all products undergo. Sony exports globally, making information on shipping, processing, and sourcing even more critical. In addition, Sony has previously faced child labour claims, making the disclosure of their process especially vital (although this was denied in their annual sustainability report). Suppose Sony as a company is truly confident in its sustainability actions. In that case, I believe that information on the entire manufacturing process should be proudly presented and easily accessible on the company website. With only information on the process of recycled materials available, this may suggest a certain level of greenwashing towards its consumers. However, the overall lack of transparency on manufacturing processes in the headphones industry may explain Sony’s choice of action, as there is an incentive to conceal such information from their competitors. Nevertheless, in a sustainability sense, I still argue that this section's rating of 0.5 planets is justifiable.
Sony publishes an annual sustainability report with around 200 pages, including a summary section, on their company website, making it easily accessible for average consumers to locate and read. What I found particularly commendable is the topics included in the report – not only environmental aspects were covered, but topics of respect for human rights, diversity and equality, and community engagement were also extensively included. Within the diversity and equality section, statistics of women in management positions at Sony (Japan) were especially highlighted, showcasing an increase from 9.3% in 2020 to 10.2% in 2021 - such statistics should heavily be further improved upon. Only key activities and efforts to include members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disability were presented – I hope that some level of statistics for such minority groups will be included in future sustainability reports.
Sony has developed multiple environmental plans since the 1970s. In particular, Sony launched the “Road to Zero” environmental plan in 2010 with the goal of achieving zero environmental footprints. In efforts to accelerate their efforts to reach this goal, Sony has further developed the “Green Management 2025 target” with three key plans of action: (1) Improve energy and resource efficiency of products, (2) Expand renewable energy use, (3) Enhance supply chain engagement. The success of these actions has been clearly highlighted, such as achieving a 100% reduction in plastic packaging in newly-designed small products. The 2021 sustainability report also drew attention to how their environmental achievements exceeded their original annual target. However, due to the lack of transparency with its detailed manufacturing process for the WH-1000XM5, I am still slightly sceptical about its sustainability-driven actions and wonder if it is all greenwashing in the end, like many other major technology corporations. Nevertheless, after going through a few third-party ESG rating websites, it appears that Sony has a low ESG risk rating and ranks relatively high compared with other corporations in the industry. Despite this, the lack of information on (1) the companies that Sony invests in and (2) the companies that invest in Sony makes it difficult to give this section a rating over 2 planets. Therefore, I believe that a rating of 1 planet is justifiable.