Kagoo recently started supporting smartphones on the site, offering comprehensive details on a whole range of quality smartphones. You can browse all the latest Smartphones in our Smartphone Hub & view the best deals on our Smartphone Deals Page. To celebrate their arrival, we’re looking in depth at smartphone features - today we’re continuing our investigation into the way smartphone design & manufacture can be improved to be more sustainable.
In our first article we looked at the environmental problems surrounding smartphone manufacture. To recap, these are:
Modern smartphones require rare and difficult-to-obtain metals for their construction. Some of these may be fuelling conflicts, while others risk damaging the environment as they are collected.
Factories that build smartphones use a substantial amount of energy, use hazardous chemicals in their processes and generate a large amount of waste.
The massive infrastructure required to construct, ship and sell these devices also has a large carbon footprint, and a high cost on the environment.
The constant drive for newer devices, mixed with the difficulty of fixing broken smartphones, means a significant amount of waste is generated from discarded/broken smartphones.
It’s a pretty damning situation, so what exactly can be done about it? In this article we’re going to explore possible solutions, concentrating on the manufacturers and the consumers themselves.
Smartphone Manufacturer Changes
Historically, smartphone companies haven’t had the best track record with environmentally-conscious design. Their focus has always been on chasing the next big thing and constantly pushing the technical boundaries of what smartphones can achieve, while quickly losing interest and throwing away old devices. This has led to a gigantic increase in the demand for rare earth metals, high-polluting manufacturing methods & a philosophy of making smartphones disposable - where companies would prefer customers bought an entirely new phone rather than fixing their old one.
To confirm this, a 2017 study by Greenpeace found that the majority of electronics manufacturers were falling far short of what they should be doing - with many companies rated ‘F’ or ‘E’, a couple rated ‘C’ or ‘B’ (most notably Apple) and nobody gaining the top ‘A’ rating for sustainable practices for consumer electronics.
Thankfully, these attitudes are slowly beginning to change - the last 5 years have seen a shift in the way companies are viewing their responsibilities towards the environment. This means that a number of smartphone and tech manufacturers have started outliningpledges to overhaul & improve the way they construct products. Sadly not every company has turned their focus to environmental issues, but Apple has made it their mission to improve the way iPhones and iPads are constructed. Their pledge is indicative of the way all companies should be reacting:
Aiming to be entirely carbon neutral by 2030.
Moving their manufacturing facilities (and those of their partners) to renewable energy sources, drastically reducing their carbon footprint.
Avoiding using rare/conflict materials as much as possible, to reduce the damage to the environment.
Using recycled/reclaimed materials, both for the devices themselves and for the packaging. This will reduce the environmental impact of each device, and reduce the waste generated by packaging.
Designing their products to use less energy for everyday use. Less energy drain means a smaller carbon footprint.
Shrink packaging, and include fewer superfluous elements (such as chargers) which use more resources, generate waste and will mostly be unnecessary, since many people already have multiple chargers.
Run Apple Stores from 100% renewable energy sources.
Now few companies possess Apple’s capabilities or resources, so it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to commit as fully as Apple has. However Apple is a trendsetter, and they are providing a roadmap for other companies to follow suit. Some of these steps may be easier than others, but the important thing is a move towards recycled/reclaimed materials and an understanding that renewable energy is key to a sustainable future.
These changes will not happen overnight - Apple is giving themselves a decade to enact them all, and other companies will move significantly slower. However the important thing is that the attitudes of tech companies are beginning to change, and sustained movement towards sustainable design will help the planet, slowly but surely.
While it’s true that the largest improvements to the environment will come because of changes made by multinational companies, that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do personally to improve matters. Don’t devalue the power of individual changes: companies are still beholden to the whims of their customer base. If enough people change their buying habits, manufacturers will be far more receptive to embracing sustainable design. So, what can you do to help improve this situation?
Four ideas for embracing sustainable design:
Be mindful of company’s environmental policies
Buy refurbished phones
Choose modular phones
Recycle your old phone
Let’s look more closely at these:
Be mindful of company’s environmental policies
As we have mentioned, it’s important for companies to spearhead changes to their practices. Therefore the best starting point is to research to see how your chosen phone rates for sustainability. Given the higher profile of sustainability issues with smartphones, it’s become easier to find out such info - for instance The Guardian dedicates a whole section of each smartphone review to sustainability. Do some reading, find out how much environmental impact the smartphone has, as well as recycling options, expected life, repairability, etc. The more info you have, the more informed your choice will be.
Buy refurbished/used phones
Buying a new phone is a great feeling, and you know that you’re getting a 100% proper product that nobody else has touched. However you should also consider a refurbished or used phone as well. Many phone manufacturers sell refurbished handsets directly from their website - these are almost indistinguishable from a brand new handset, except they are cheaper and help reduce the carbon footprint from buying a brand new phone. The same is true of used phones, though you should be careful that the quality is ok when you buy them. That said, you can save even more money, and help the planet just that little more!
Choose modular/sustainable phones
Most of us view phones as a single object - you buy a phone as a whole unit and upgrade to an entirely new phone when you want a change. While this is true for 99% of smartphones, the last few years has seen a number of ‘modular’ phones arrive on the market. As the name suggests, modular phones are designed so that each individual element (battery, camera module, storage, etc) can be swapped out, repaired or upgraded. This immediately gives the phone far more flexibility & a longer life - if the camera fails on your smartphone, you can change/repair the module rather than throwing the whole thing out or sending it back to the manufacturers.
There is one major modular phone maker on the market right now - the Fairphone. While not as powerful as mainstream models, they are significantly better for the environment. They also have a strong code of ethics, taking great cares to make sure that their phones don’t harm the environment or exploit anyone.
Outside of the Fairphone, there are also a number of sustainable and ethical phones that concentrate on high repairability, high sustainability phones that are good for the environment. The Teracube is a good example of this, offering cheap repairs, biodegradable case & battery, and eco-friendly packaging. Though you may be sacrificing some power and cutting-edge features, you’ll be generating a far smaller carbon footprint and making a choice that will benefit the planet and our future.
Right to repair
Historically, mobile phones have been notoriously difficult to repair. They are complicated devices and companies have actively fought against consumers trying to fix their own devices, rather than using official repair shops or buying a new device. This has led to a grey market for repairs: which don’t always give the best results, but are frequently significantly cheaper than the exorbitant prices charged by manufacturers. However there is hope for the future - an EU ruling introducing a ‘right to repair’ for electronics will hopefully force smartphone makers to make it easier to repair their devices.
Recycle your old phone
Finally - even if you choose the most eco-friendly phone, there’s going to be a point where you either want to upgrade or move to a different model. When this happens, don’t just junk your old phone - make sure to recycle it so that the components can be reclaimed for use in other phones. Most phone manufacturers have recycling schemes active for their handsets, or there are a number of 3rd-party schemes that will take your old phones and make sure they’re reused.
The problem of smartphone sustainability has long been a problem, and it’s only in the last few years that companies have turned their attention to solving it. While there have been a number of positive steps - such as sustainability pledges, a right-to-repair and modular smartphones, it’s too early to tell whether these will have any long term effect. However right now every little helps - the more people are committed to smartphone sustainability, the better it will be for the planet.