Why Tech Companies Can't Stop Talking About Sustainability

Yes, sustainability is an overused buzzword, but it's still important.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, wannabe runner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise cybersecurity, digital privacy, IoT, consumer tech, smartphones, wearables
Bree Fowler
4 min read
An image of the John Deere logo in front of one of its crop sprayers.

John Deere had a CES presence as big as one of its giant crop sprayers.

Bree Fowler/CNET

Sustainability was top of mind for Travis Senter long before it became a buzzword in the tech industry. 

For the past 60 years, Senter's family has raised corn, cotton, soybeans and rice on 20,000 acres in northeast Arkansas. Each year, he said, his family tries to do things a little better with a little less. The focus is always on improving the land and making sure it can continue to produce for generations to come. 

"Everybody talks about sustainability like it's this new thing," Senter said in an interview at CES. "We've been doing it forever. Farmers everywhere do what we do. If you don't, you don't survive."

Sustainability was most definitely a buzzword at CES this year, with everyone from the largest tech giants to the smallest startups touting the related benefits of their products. The heightened frequency of extreme weather events -- from flooding in Pakistan to wildfires in Calfornia -- has turned up the awareness of the effects of the climate crisis. As a result, companies throughout the show embraced sustainability, whether dropping a line in a keynote about the use of recycled plastic or showing off systems meant to make your home more efficient. 

Sustainability bandwagon

Companies were quick to point out their efforts. Samsung and Patagonia, which have previously partnered on environmental efforts, announced the creation of a washing machine that filters out the microplastics from shampoos and other consumer products.

Meanwhile, Schneider Electric debuted its complete smart home energy ecosystem, receiving a CES 2023 Innovation Award for the app that brings it all together. The system is designed to save consumers money on energy and maximize their home's efficiency.

An image of a Jackery solar-powered generator.

This Jackery generator can be powered by the sun.

Bree Fowler/CNET

Less well-known companies, like portable-battery maker Jackery, fought for attention at CES' evening press events. That company, which won four of the show's Innovation Awards, showed off its solar- and wind-powered generators.

The Department of Energy had a CES booth for the first time, and Secretary Jennifer Granholm spoke about the Biden administration's goals of achieving 100% clean electricity on the national grid by 2035 and a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.

Granholm told a packed room that the goals are needed to combat the climate change responsible for severe weather events, which caused nearly a billion dollars in damages last year, as well as to make the US' energy supply independent from "petro dictators" and others who would weaponize energy resources.

"It is a matter of national security," Granholm said. "It's a matter of energy security to be clean and energy independent as a stronger nation."

She also pointed to the billions of dollars in economic opportunities related to clean energy that US companies could take advantage of, as well as the potential for new jobs that could help countless Americans.  

Farm tech goes green

John Deere, one of the biggest names in farming machinery, had one of the biggest presences at CES. Long associated with traditional farming equipment, the company has gone high-tech in recent years with an eye toward improving efficiency for farmers.

Displayed at CES was a massive crop sprayer featuring the company's See & Spray technology. The tech uses a system of cameras and image recognition designed to determine the difference between crops and weeds so the machine can spray herbicides only on plants it wants to get rid of, reducing chemical use.

The company also showed off its new ExactShot planting system, which it says can cut fertilizer use by as much as 60%, saving farmers money and slashing the amount of excess chemicals that go into the ground.

Those improvements could make a huge impact both on the environment and farmer profitability, John Deere Chairman and CEO John May said in an interview with CNET.

"It's a really winning value proposition for our customer and for the environment," said May, who also delivered one of the conference's keynote talks.

While high-tech machinery like this can be a massive investment, Senter, who's tested prelaunch equipment for John Deere and attended CES on behalf of the company, said his industry has evolved to the point where modern farmers just wouldn't be able to do what they do without it and other kinds of tech.

That's especially true when it comes to sustainability, he said.

"We love what we do and we love our land," Senter said of his family farming operation. "We love the ability to make things better."

Senter added that from a practical standpoint, farmers who don't make things better and improve just aren't going to make money.

"So," he said, "you gotta be able to make sure that what you do now is going to be sustainable down the road."