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Beginners guide to sustainable and ethical smartphones

In the near future, consumers will expect smartphone brands to make significant improvements in their sustainability practices.

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More than 5 billion people have smartphones in the world, and that number is growing. When climate change is concerned, having two-thirds of the global population with a smartphone in their possession can result in some profound environmental impact. The devastating effect humans have on the planet is well documented, and smartphones are yet another area to consider when reviewing carbon footprint and sustainability.

Nowadays, we are at a critical point in the fight against climate change, and consumers need to make behavioral changes. The WWF reports that 75% of consumers in the UK agree that if humans do not change the way they live over the next ten years, the state of the planet will put the existence of future generations in danger.

Luckily for the consumer who is more focused on the smartphone features than how eco the product is, smartphone manufacturers continuously improve their sustainability. They understand that sustainability is the way forward and will also lead to future profitability.

For example, Apple and Samsung have both been in the news when they removed charging adapters from their retail packaging – claiming that the change will cut carbon emissions.

People are aware of the damage caused by fossil fuels and are keen to switch to solar companies for their power, but are these consumers also making sustainable choices when choosing a smartphone? It appears not, as sales figures show consumers are not rushing out to buy from the newer sustainably led brand just yet.

With this in mind, let’s look at how smartphones are damaging the environment and how consumers can make smarter, sustainable choices when choosing their next smartphone.

Environmental Impacts of Smartphones

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The core issue with the smartphone is predominantly due to their supply chain. Mobile phones are made from rare earth materials such as silver, gold, platinum, palladium, yttrium, or lithium. This results in smartphones being one of the most resource-intensive products by weight on the planet.

The mining processes for these materials are still fueled mainly by oil, consequently contributing to high carbon emissions. Additionally, social impacts, specifically around the issue of human rights, are often a concern during this process as well.

Another environmental concern arises from the manufacturing procedures. The majority of electronic devices are manufactured in China – where coal is still a leading source of energy, producing even more emissions.

As the majority of smartphone consumers want the latest smartphone available on the market, it leads to a shorter lifespan of the devices. This results in fully-functional phones being replaced and thrown away. Some mobile companies recognize the short shelf life, so they do not design durable or easy devices to repair as they know the phone will soon be replaced.

Most mobile phones are not collected and recycled responsibly, so the amount of e-waste is continuously growing. There is a projected 40 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste produced worldwide, with less than 16% being recycled in the formal sector. In addition, the pollution from hazardous materials and metals affects local environments and the health of those working on the e-waste sites.

Smartphone Carbon Footprint

Around 80% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint takes place during production because the processes of manufacturing and mining are energy-intensive. As a result, the average smartphone generated 55 kg of carbon emissions during the production process.

Although this may not appear to be a significant amount at first, once calculating that 1.55 billion phones are sold each year around the world, these carbon emissions soon add up. Corresponding to a 2019 study by the European Environmental Bureau, the climate impact of phones in EU nations alone was 14.2 million tonnes of CO2.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Your Smartphone

recycle old smartphones
Image: KnowTechie

In case your mobile phone contract is coming to an end, or you fancy a new smartphone, have a good think before rushing off and buying one. Ask yourself one simple question – is a new smartphone something you need or want?

Shockingly, the current average lifespan of a smartphone is only between 1 and 2 years. So if everyone reduced their consumption and kept smartphones longer, it would have a massive impact on the number of greenhouse emissions produced by the industry.

If you do need to replace your current smartphone, consider a second-hand or refurbished one. The cost is lower, and your carbon footprint will be reduced. A refurbished phone does not mean it will not be just as reliable as a brand new one.

They have been professionally reconditioned and come with a warranty and return policy. Some brands, such as Apple, for example, offer refurbished devices themselves. If your smartphone of choice is not available directly from the manufacturer as certified refurbished, plenty of companies provide the service.

Smartphones are made from many materials, and some of them are rare and valuable. These materials must be extracted and reused instead of ending up in a landfill. Around 80% of a smartphone can be recycled, so make sure it is recycled instead of leaving it in a draw or just throwing it away.

Some mobile phone companies offer a recycling program. You can also look at selling your old phone to donate them to an organization that will refurbish or recycle them.

Criteria for Purchasing Sustainable and Ethical Smartphones

oneplus 8 smartphone
Image: KnowTechie

When sourcing a sustainable and ethical smartphone, it is worth considering the following criteria:

  • Supply Chain Transparency – Look at the mobile phones website and check if they have a sustainable policy in place and whether they have any sustainable specific phone options. Areas to look for include what kind of energy they use (i.e. is it from renewable energy companies), who supplies their materials, and how the phone’s manufacturing is. How does the mobile phone company deal with the environmental and social impacts of production? The more information you find, the better.
  • Sustainable Design – The main features of sustainable phone design include the use of environmental and recycled materials, the need for less energy and more efficient charging, durable, and that they are easy and inexpensive to repair.
  • End-of-life Responsibility – Have a look to see if the company offers a take-back system and read over their recycling programmes. The more materials that can be recovered and reused from recycling, the more sustainable the smartphone will be.

Sustainable Legislation for Smartphones

Governments are now taking a stance to make sure the smartphone industry becomes more sustainable. For example, the European Union has introduced the ‘right to repair bill.’ This bill will legally require manufacturers to make spare parts available to consumers for their products. This is the first time this kind of legislation has been introduced and will dramatically improve the ease to repair broken phones.

It is estimated that 1 in 2 consumers in an EU nation state purchased a new smartphone because their previous one was broken. With the new bill in place, it will be fascinating to observe how it affects sales of smartphones and how many people opt to fix a broken device.

The Takeaway

In the near future, consumers will expect smartphone brands to make significant improvements in their sustainability practices. Their smartphone is seen as an extension of themselves for many people – from the logo on the back to the case that protects it. These devices will soon also need to reflect their sustainable lifestyle.

The ways consumers can be environmental with their smartphone choices can also result in money-saving. For example, getting a refurbished phone is cheaper and greener than buying a new one. This is leading to manufacturers, network providers, and retailing looking for new and creative ways to promote sustainability whilst driving sales.

So consider looking out for some exciting developments in the telecommunication industry over the next few years.

Have any thoughts on this? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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