TOP
Skullcandy wants a user to repair headphones instead of buying new ones, and their innovative technology is making this easy.

Skullcandy doesn’t want you to buy more headphones

Skullcandy doesn’t want you to buy more headphones

Taking a stand against electronic waste, the company wants you to keep using your old ones.

BY JENNIFER ALSEVER

Skullcandy doesn’t want you to buy more headphones

Taking a stand against electronic waste, the company wants you to keep using your old ones.

BY JENNIFER ALSEVER

The consumer electronics industry is notorious for environmental waste. Companies built their business models upon designing products that will not last and then encouraging consumers to replace them every couple of years. 

Headphone maker Skullcandy is heading in the other direction.

The Park City-based company is designing its earbuds and headphones for the long haul with “Skull-iQ,” which includes hardware and components that can be “turned on” months or years later for additional audio features. With firmware updates, the regular wireless headphones you bought six months ago could suddenly get noise cancelation or trigger a number of various branded voice assistants.

“We’ve futureproofed them,” says Nelson Fortiér, Skullcandy’s VP of marketing. “We want to make our devices last longer—not just physically, but we want them to be relevant longer, too.”

That kind of sustainable design is unusual in consumer tech, which tends to build products with “planned obsolescence” in mind, meaning devices are not designed to last or work with future software. As a result, Americans spend an estimated $1,480 per household each year on new electronics, discarding 6.9 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste), according to a report by the Public Interest Research Group.

That’s a big problem for the environment. A 2019 World Economic Forum report called e-waste “the fastest-growing waste stream in the world.” Much of that waste is incinerated, dumped in landfills, or shipped to undeveloped countries, creating public health and environmental hazards. When that e-waste is exposed to heat, toxic chemicals are released into the air, damaging the atmosphere. Toxic elements like lead, mercury, and cadmium can leak into the groundwater, affecting the environment further.

Making new products is also an issue. There is the environmental cost of mining materials, the energy used to produce them, and the carbon emissions from transportation, marketing, and packaging. The manufacturing of three new laptops, for instance, emits 1 ton of CO2, according to data from the Geneva Environment Network, a cooperative of 75 environment organizations.

Large tech companies have made moves to source more sustainable materials and cut factory emissions. For instance, Apple reported that its assembly sites for its products are certified zero waste to landfill, and it has decreased average product energy use by 70 percent in the last 10 years. Google, however, began issuing detailed environmental impact reports for its devices in 2020 to educate consumers but also to rethink how some of those products are made. The company started using recycled materials in all consumer electronics products and plans to eliminate all plastics from its packaging by 2025.

But there has been little innovation in designing products to last longer and resistance to efforts to make them more repairable, says Alex Lobos, professor of industrial design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “It might prevent them from keeping costs down and from having consumers replace products often,” he says. 

Last year, President Biden signed an order that would require cell phone companies and tech companies to make available their proprietary software, repair manuals, tools, and other components so products can be repaired by anyone.

“It’s a good step, but there needs to be a way to make devices truly repairable,” Lobos says. For instance, most electronics and cell phones are made with glues and parts soldered together for cost efficiencies that are nearly impossible to take apart. More sustainable design, he says, may only happen with legislation.

Skullcandy changed the design of its headphones for different reasons: sustainability and product differentiation. When Skullcandy founder Rick Alden started the company on a Park City chairlift two decades ago, his startup was an innovator in the industry—among the first to put two speakers in each headphone cup. 

But today, Skullcandy sits in a saturated $85 billion market in which earphones have become a commodity. Since its birth, the 300-employee company has worked to protect the earth and climate by choosing everything from vendors and plastic components to how materials are transported and how energy-efficient its new Park City headquarters would be.  

Fortiér admits that Skullcandy is taking a risk in an industry designed around recurring revenue dependent on sales of the launch of newer models. Skullcandy, in essence, will eat into its own revenue stream, the size of which Fortiér declined to reveal. There is also the risk that the company ships out devices with extra parts that may or may not get used.

But the “land and expand” strategy is smart, says Urvashi Bhatnagar, author of “The Sustainability Scorecard: How to Implement and Profit from Unexpected Solutions.” Rather than continually “dating” customers with new products, Skullcandy is engaging consumers over a longer lifespan, allowing them to acquire a greater share of the consumer’s wallet. “Skullcandy is saving money in acquiring new customers,” she says.

On the upside, Skullcandy won’t have the added cost and time of designing, building, shipping, and marketing new products. And sustainable products are in high demand: As many as two-thirds of consumers say they want a business to take a stand on issues close to their hearts, according to a 2020 survey by Accenture. And another report by KPMG suggests that 90 percent of customers are willing to pay more for ethical retailers, 50 percent factor environmental and social practices into whether they make a purchase, and nearly 75 percent say they’ll leave a brand if they feel it puts profit over people. This is especially true for consumer electronics, in which consumer demand will continue to play a large role in forcing electronics firms to become more sustainable, Bhatnagar says. 

Skullcandy’s own internal research found that about half of its customers go and buy new products because theirs weren’t working properly or didn’t have the longevity it once had. The other half bought new because they wanted more advanced audio. “A lot of times, people put those devices in a drawer, forget about them, and eventually throw them away,” Fortiér says, “but they’re perfectly good products and have a lot of life left in them.”

Research has also found a connection between environmental design and loyalty, Lobos says. When consumers develop a bond with their products, they are more likely to keep them for longer and repair them rather than replace them, and that’s a huge win for sustainability. When they do replace it, they typically stay loyal to that brand.

Skull-iQ translates to consumers in a more general way, with packaging that promises the technology “enables your device to get smarter over time.”

To roll out the new features, Skullcandy partnered with Bragi, a software development platform for artificial intelligence and wireless audio features. One of the first projects Skull-iQ undertook was to send out upgrades that extend the battery life of its earbuds. “It’s not that drastic, but it has an improvement,” Fortiér says.

Potential features down the road may be more complex, such as gesture technology or active noise cancellation (ANC). The company must also adapt to a rapidly changing competitive landscape and changing consumer desires. Product developers check in with consumers every couple of months, and engineers dig deep for a 60-day development sprint. Product and marketing teams must then work closely to determine when to publish upgrades and alert consumers of the new features.

Engineers have also spent months trying to figure out how to launch upgrades within the Skullcandy app, which lets consumers control their headphones. You would think that would be simple, but most app architectures are fairly rigid, making it difficult to add extra lines of code to perform an extra function, Fortiér says. The team is trying to build a more dynamic app ecosystem to change and add new capabilities without breaking existing functionality.

Time will tell whether Skullcandy’s strategy works. Lobos says Skullcandy needs more than durable headphones; it needs new services, a loyal community, and lifestyle benefits. He points to the success of Patagonia, the leader in sustainable brands. The outdoor brand bought full-page ads in the New York Times telling people not to buy one of their products, encouraging them to repair old coats and clothes instead. The company has made it easy to send products in for repair, sometimes even returning a jacket with contrasting stitching to make hanging onto Patagonia garments even cooler. But it also created a marketplace platform where consumers could sell used Patagonia garb.  “You can’t just do one thing,” Lobos says, “Otherwise, it’s a big risk.”

Jennifer Alsever is a freelance journalist with bylines at Fortune and Marker; and an author of young adult fiction. To learn more about Jennifer visit jenniferalsever.com.

Comments (27)

  • Redheaded Cajun

    My daughter fell in love with Skullcandy when they first came out after trying a couple of other types and them not holding up. One pair of Skullcandy headphones lasted her through high school and beyond and she loved the sound. I think for Christmas I’ll be buying her the latest to last her the next 10-20+ years then.I would feel good about investing in them.

    • Jill

      I have used Apple”s Beats solo3! I had mine for 3 years so far! No issues! $200 is well worth it! Bought mine at Walmart!

  • Matt

    I have never had a pair of Skull Candy headphones last longer than 6 months. Addressing QC issues will be a good place to start in eliminating waste.

    • Andre

      I have had my Skullcandy headphones for 3 years, works like new.

    • Taylor

      I’ve never had a pair last *less* than 6 months, I’ve been buying Skullcandy for over 10 years and with one exception (the strum, bad design) I’ve only replaced them when I lost them.

  • James Pierce

    I have a pair before China started making them and they great, but ran over one and broke it .I bought a new pair and they are made in China and they suck

  • John W.

    This is – plain and simple – a PR stunt. Go to the forums and see just how Skullcandy provides “customer service.” For a clear example: A cheap part that wears out, but is critical to using earbuds – the little boot with the ear hook on it, falls apart and easily falls off and gets lost. Literally hundreds of people for the past few years – and now me included – have asked them for replacement ear gels (they’re called). They have not had replacements for, literally, years and it renders the buds useless. I asked several times for them and they directed me to Amazon to purchase “universal fit” replacements – which NOBODY makes. They kept telling me the exact same thing email after email. I asked for a specific URL or product and got the same lame answer. What I got was a “sorry for the inconvenience” and here’s 25% off your next purchase with us. Tell me, is THAT responsible?!

    • Taylor

      Is this what you’re talking about John? Not sure what you’re so angry about if so

      https://a.co/d/dx1zPbJ

      • Adam

        Those aren’t them. I had the same problem. It’s the stabilizers made out of ultra-thin rubber that slip on the back of some buds with nothing to lock them in place. They fall off constantly, often when’s removing buds, and if you lost one your headphones are garbage as they literally can’t stay in the ear without them. Can’t possibly cost more than a fraction of a penny, SC just doesn’t care.

  • Michael

    1 you can’t upgrade hardware with a software update….
    2 unless they can solve battery degredation or make them replaceable, it doesn’t matter
    3 maybe I’m just mistaken, but I’ve never seen Skullcandy as anything other than some cheap stuff

  • Jeremy Hanson

    Skullcandy were great as wired earbuds for $10-20. Their wireless buds have always had battery degradation and become unusable within 6-12 months. I even had a pair I purchased for myself, two other people (total 3 pair), all of them were unable to hold a charge or come close to rated battery life, within a month or two of purchase.

    Something about having a storage case with a constant connection between the batteries, forcing charging when not being needed, significantly shortens the life of the batteries. Batteries which aren’t replaceable. I purchased the skull candy Indys and the drivers sounded blown at max volume. Purchased the sesh evos and the batteries sucked right out of the box. When you pay $80 for something that ends up being trash right away, makes you want to not buy them again.

    Before that, I owned the LG HBS A 100. Used them for 2 years. Gave them to someone else when the batteries stopped holding a charge. Using the LG Fn6 now, for a year. Great buds. I’d rather pay LG for theirs, tbh. The quality difference is huge.

  • Cuvis

    Lots of talk about sustainability here, but if they really wanted to reduce waste, they’d design these things so they could have the battery easily replaced and don’t become e-waste as soon as it wears out.

  • Ed Kolis

    So you buy a pair of headphones but most of the features are disabled until the company decides to unlock them for you? That sounds beyond useless! I bet next they’ll charge a subscription fee which unlocks everything early…

  • AHazyNebula

    If Skullcandy was so set on this “going green” agenda, they would make their products with higher quality. Ex: Me buying Grind x Viper earbuds for $90 and it craps out after only 30 days and they don’t replace it.

  • Anon

    Umm skullcandies are the middle of low tier headphones at best and crap bin headphones at worst. Maybe make quality products that aren’t just muddied bass and crap plastic that has to be replaced more than once a year before speaking on environmental concerns you cause yourself. Take a leaf from seinheizer’s books, there are people still rocking their HD 600s from decades ago and only ever replaced the pads on them.

  • Ralph

    Of the Skullcandy products I’ve purchased, I’ve only had good luck with the old Slayer universal headset and the Smokin Buds wireless Bluetooth earbuds. Both lasted me years.

    The “true wireless” ones gave me connectivity issues after a few months.

  • Nate

    Sounds more like marketing hype.
    Everytime someone tried to future proof, their vision of the future was at best short sighted.
    I also wouldn’t be surprised if the future features were just paywall features.

  • Adam

    Aside from the other very good critiques here (not sustainable without replaceable batteries, better product design, etc), the bit about it being difficult to do firmware upgrades from within the app is an absolute lie. Every other peripheral I own has been doing it for years, from other headphones to my ultra-cheap bike computer. SC was slick in this press release in ignoring the only thing that matters- will they commit to actually developing and releasing firmware upgrades on a perpetual basis? Lots of companies advertise this and then just never develop/push updates.

    The news here isn’t that they are implementing a basic feature, it’s that they hasn’t already.

  • Josh

    I had a great pair of Bose wired in ears. Perfectly fine but after a few years of gentle usage the cable started crumbling. I wrote them about problems with their choice of materials but only got a side response with a link to buy new ones. Of course that was the end of Bose for me.

  • Nick

    They were a great brand for the price some years ago which I still stick to my sb2 wireless for work now since they are too old to handle games and such music sounds great with them and the wired ones are ok if you don’t strain the cord too much but I switched to Lenovo give them a shot so far they are great for the lower price have updated tech and low latency for alot cheaper than scullcandy and the build quality is better imo

  • Will

    Could have fooled me. All mine act up around 6 months in. Then they stopped making the cheap $10-20 I liked. Bit the bullet and went bluetooth. After a year that broke and got another. Now they changed the ear bud shape so it hurts a little. Those broke, got the next new revision which didn’t even last 3 months. Had to move on to other brands now.

  • Benjamin Rynearson

    I’m sorry to say but this is total BS. They do not have the quality or service to support products long term. I just purchased a $149 pair of true wireless headphones and they stopped working in a little over a month. They had a connectivity issue and a charging issue. I had only used them a few times. Skullcandy refused to do anything about it, saying it was because I had used a credit from a previous warranty return they would not warranty these. I have been a long term Skullcandy customer; Seriously since they day they started. However I guess I’m done with them because their product quality has dropped off in recent years and there customer service is atrocious. They would really have to step it up a lot in order to have products last long term or be able to support products long-term and I don’t see it happening with them…Goodbye Skullcandy it has been a pretty good ride but you are not what you use to be or what you claim to be so I have to part ways…

  • Bill Sackedher

    You guys do know this is nothing more than a transition into a monthly service with possible reoccurring hardware trade ins for upgrades

  • Dale

    I don’t remember how many of Skullcandy’s original Skullcrushers I fried.

  • Tim

    Well if the power lasted more than 1 1/2 hours I wouldn’t need to buy another set

  • Aaron

    Including functionality in the device that is simply turned off until they decide to turn it on isn’t clever or future-proofing or ecologically friendly. They’re just greenwashing anti-consumer practices by selling you a handicapped device and then charging more to enable features it already has later.

  • Ben Hays

    I bought a pair of Skullcandy pods and they are junk. They don’t stay in my ear well enough and I’ve tried the other size fittings. Also they stay connected while inside the case.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.