Sustainable Phone Purchasing Tips: What to Prioritize

Considering a sustainable phone purchase? Before making a decision, it's crucial to prioritize sustainability. Brands utilize diverse manufacturing methods, making it vital to distinguish genuine sustainability efforts from marketing tactics. Thankfully, phones are continuously improving in efficiency, enhancing their sustainability. Additionally, data transparency on manufacturing practices is an added benefit.

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In today's world, smartphones have become ubiquitous, but their production and disposal come with significant environmental consequences. From the extraction of rare earth minerals to the generation of electronic waste, the impact of smartphones on the environment is undeniable. In this guide, we'll explore the environmental footprint of phone manufacturing, discuss sustainable phone options, and evaluate the sustainability efforts of leading smartphone manufacturers like Fairphone, Apple, and Samsung.

Join us as we delve into the world of eco-friendly choices and upgrades in the realm of mobile technology!

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Our Pick ⭐ Fairphone 5

Our Pick ⭐ Fairphone 5

Fairphone 5

Why Is It Our Pick? πŸ€”

The Fairphone 5 delivers impressive performance with its advanced features like a 6.46-inch FullHD+ OLED touchscreen, Qualcomm octa-core processor, and a high-resolution triple camera setup, making it a top choice for users seeking both sustainability and cutting-edge technology.
With its unlocked compatibility for all GSM carriers, robust build quality including IP55 rating and military-grade drop test certification, and extensive storage options, the Fairphone 5 offers a reliable and environmentally conscious smartphone experience suitable for a wide range of users.

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1. How Does the Production of Phones Impact the Environment?

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Currently, although various institutional policies (as well as) companies aim to address the challenge of making phones more sustainable, there is still a significant number of sustainability problems associated with phone manufacturing.

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Manufacturing Processes: Extraction And More Β 

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Phones have seamlessly integrated into our daily routines, yet their environmental implications remain widely overlooked. The manufacturing process involves extracting rare earth minerals, which can significantly harm biodiversity. Mining activities contribute to soil erosion, water pollution, and deforestation, among other detrimental effects. Moreover, the extraction process releases toxic chemicals like sulfuric acid and cyanide, posing risks to both human health and the environment.

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Phone Disposal Challenges

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What happens when you no longer need a phone? Well, it's not difficult to envision. The majority of electronic waste, including mobile phones, either ends up in landfills or gets exported to developing countries. This results in soil and water contamination, air pollution, and poses health hazards for workers.

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Non-Biodegradable Materials

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Not all materials are created equal; some are not biodegradable. When considering greenhouse gas emissions, the same principle applies: methane, found in your fridge, doesn't exit our atmosphere at the same pace as "ordinary" carbon dioxide. Mobile phones contain non-biodegradable materials like plastics, metals, and glass, contributing to long-term environmental issues as they take hundreds of years to decompose.

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Resource Loss

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And this is the real problem... How do you actually ensure that you end up with materials that can be reused for manufacturing new phones? Too often, the disposal of old phones results in the loss of valuable resources that could be recycled and reused, worsening the demand for virgin materials and the environmental impact of production.

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Planned Obsolescence

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From a design perspective, creating a phone that maintains relevance poses a challenge. With consumers often dissatisfied with battery life and constantly seeking the latest upgrades, it begs the question: is our culture of mass consumption to blame, and is change necessary? Regardless, addressing this issue won't be simple. The truth is, consumer demand for the newest gadgets, coupled with planned obsolescence practices, drives frequent upgrades, resulting in a surge of electronic waste and promoting excessive consumption, which further harms the environment.

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Call For Action

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Is truly time for manufacturers, policymakers, and consumers to take responsibility and act decisively.

Manufacturers, policymakers, and consumers need to take responsibility and collaborate to minimize the environmental impact of mobile phone production and disposal through recycling, reducing consumption, and adopting sustainable practices.

Some of the ways policy-makers tackle this issue is

In the EU, regulations aim to promote greener and more sustainable phones, which include provisions for: Β 

  • Long-lasting batteries and user-replaceable parts.
  • Software longevity, ensuring updates for five years from purchasing a model.

All in all, regulations are viewed positively for increasing the sustainability of phones.

The industry recognizes the necessity of such measures, and consumers are driving this push as they prioritize sustainable phone choices.

Today, brands like Apple and Nokia, as well as the popular Fairphone, offer increased repairability, recyclability, and longer software support.

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2. What Is the Carbon Footprint of Making a Phone?

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The carbon footprint of smartphones is determined by various factors including their size, weight, materials, components, battery, software, and packaging.

Considering the entire lifecycle of a product, such as a smartphone, encompasses not only its usage but also the interdependence on various activities involved in material extraction and manufacturing.

  • A study by Carbon Trust found that the average carbon footprint of a smartphone is around 60 kg CO2e, but this varies widely depending on the model and brand.
  • Consumers can reduce smartphone emissions by choosing models with lower carbon footprints, avoiding unnecessary upgrades, recycling old phones, and supporting climate-friendly policies and initiatives.
  • Benefits of reducing smartphone emissions include saving money, improving health, enhancing well-being, contributing to environmental protection, and supporting social justice in the supply chain.
  • Considerations for reducing smartphone emissions extend beyond individual actions and include systemic changes and industry accountability.

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Eco Rating

Eco Rating assesses the overall environmental footprint of mobile phones from production to disposal.

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In addition, in an article published Journal of Cleaner Production, researchers found that:

ICT's contribution to global carbon footprint:

  • Increased from 1% in 2007 to 14% by 2040.

Smartphone emissions

  • Share grew from 4% in 2010 to 11% by 2020.
  • Expected jump from 17 to 125 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year by 2020.
  • Majority of emissions (85-95%) attributed to production.

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Considerations for reducing smartphone emissions extend beyond individual actions and include systemic changes and industry accountability.

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Data centres and communications networks

  • Combined footprint projected to grow to 764 MtCO2-e/yr by 2020.
  • Data centres to contribute about two-thirds of total emissions.

How can this change? πŸ€”

  • Demand for data centres to run exclusively on renewable energy.
  • Encourage smartphone recycling to combat low recycling rates (only 1% recycled currently).

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4. Sustainable Phone Shopping: Purchasing Tips

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‍Ethical brands and repairable phones

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Choose a brand like Fairphone or Apple. Fairphone has ethical manufacturing practices and highly modular designs. While Apple has a circular approach to conceiving its phones (something Fairphone lacks).

Check out other cool options like the Lightphone, although it might prove difficult to obtain due to limited availability, and it might not suit your needs since it is a 'dumb phone' that lacks the smart apps you can find on a smartphone.

The Teracube 2E is another good option: a rugged smartphone that is made from recycled materials and has a long battery life.

Modular designs are also gaining popularity (see more below) due to increased upgradeability and reparability.

Renewed Labels Β 

Explore platforms such as Amazon and eBay for refurbished phones in excellent condition. Nonetheless, it's advisable to verify the seller's credibility and ensure there are an adequate number of ratings before making a purchase. Some users prefer purchasing refurbished Apple products from the Apple Store website to reduce waste and support sustainability.

Opting to repair an old phone is often a more favorable choice than purchasing a new one. Similarly, prolonging the lifespan of your current phone is a straightforward way to promote sustainability.

​​Transparency

While it may appear somewhat ambiguous, the importance of this matter cannot be understated. Regardless of the brand chosen, it is crucial to assess how they integrate themselves into a circular economy. One way to gauge this is by examining their manufacturing processes.

For instance, Fairphone offers transparency by disclosing its list of suppliers in the supply chain, allowing consumers to verify the ethical sourcing of materials.

Frequent software updates are essential. Fairphone, for example, prides itself on providing 7-year updates for their Fairphone 2.

Equally important are fair labor practices and sustainable manufacturing, which should be transparently addressed. Additionally, environmental impact is crucial for transparency, ensuring companies meet mitigation targets and prioritize environmental consciousness for users.

For example, Apple clearly stated that their iPhone 15 is manufactured with 75% recycled aluminum.

Taking this a step further, involving a consultancy or third party could enhance a brand's accountability and prevent potential falsification of data (although the latter is less likely). Fairphone frequently receives positive reviews from organizations like Ethical Consumer magazine.

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4. Phone Modularity

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Previously seen as a wild dream, modular designs are increasingly becoming a reality, and this will make our phones more sustainables. Check out this great article that covers the subject (Modular smartphones: far from reality?). This is the case for several reasons, but by and large, modular design is extending the product lifetime of a phone as a product.

As mentioned before, the environmental impact of smartphones largely stems from manufacturing processes, including energy use, precious metals extraction, and long supply chains.

Modular designs help alleviate this impact by reducing the strain on these processes.

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onearmy phonebloks

One Army's Phonebloks is a modular design phone for a less wasteful future

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The EU's Circular Economy Action Plan emphasizes the importance of increasing the sustainability of information and communication technology, including smartphones. Some smartphone manufacturers have embraced repairable, modular design to make devices easier to repair and recycle.

User-centric approaches are essential for promoting repair and understanding how modular products are used in real-life scenarios. SmartMod, a pseudonymous German manufacturer, offers semi-modular and modular smartphones along with repair services and DIY repair instructions. SmartMod users are more likely to engage in sustainable behavior, such as repairing damaged devices rather than discarding them.

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EU Circular Economy Action Plan

The EU's circular economy action plan

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SmartMod's relatively low repair charges and support for DIY repairs contribute to a high rate of self-repair among users. The study found that modular design increases the perception of self-repairability and leads to a positive repair experience.

Well-designed repair instructions and convenient repair services can help prolong a device's lifetime and increase emotional attachment to the product. Phone manufacturers and retailers should actively promote consumer awareness of repairability to encourage sustainable product choices. The study suggests the use of "nudge" strategies, such as repairability scores, to influence consumer behavior towards more sustainable products.

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Closing Thoughts πŸ’­

In conclusion, the environmental impact of smartphone production and disposal is undeniable, with significant implications for biodiversity, carbon emissions, and resource depletion. While efforts are being made to address sustainability issues in the industry, such as through regulations, eco-friendly design, and modular approaches, more action is needed from manufacturers, policymakers, and consumers alike.

By opting for ethical brands, choosing repairable and modular phones, and supporting policies that promote sustainability, individuals can contribute to a more sustainable future for the smartphone industry.

Ultimately, a shift towards a circular economy model, transparency in manufacturing processes, and consumer awareness of repairability and environmental impact are essential for mitigating the negative effects of smartphone consumption on our planet.

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FAQs❓

1. What Is The Most Sustainable Phone?

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The energy efficiency of TVs is indicated by star ratings, providing a convenient way to compare similar products based on capacity and features.
A higher star rating signifies lower energy consumption, translating to cost savings in operation.
Energy labels, ranging from A to G, are assigned after testing appliances for typical energy use, with A being the most efficient and G the least.
Modern LED and LCD TVs are generally more energy-efficient, consuming between 50 to 200 watts, compared to older technologies like Plasma and CRT, which are notably less efficient.
Most TVs use less than one amp and operate on a 120-volt outlet.

2. What Makes A Phone Sustainable?

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The star rating shows the energy efficiency of a television. It allows you to compare the energy efficiency of products that have similar capacity and features.
The more stars, the less energy it uses and the cheaper it is to run.

3. Is Fairphone Actually Sustainable?

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Fairphone is committed to sustainability, incorporating 100% recycled plastic, fairtrade gold and silver, and renewable energy in their production processes.
However, not all materials used in Fairphone models are entirely sustainable.
While Fairphone invests in CO2 reduction projects and balances new phone production with recycling e-waste, there are criticisms regarding performance, battery life, and other aspects of their phones.
Fairphone has been accused of greenwashing, as sustainability practices are not consistently implemented across all aspects of production and design.

4. What Phones Are Ethically Made?

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The most ethically made phones include the Fairphone 5, Nokia G22, Google Pixel 8, and any refurbished phone.
Fairphone stands out as a leader in ethical phone manufacturing, prioritizing repairability, recyclable parts, and transparent ethical standards.
This brand is committed to sustainability, offering phones with longer lifespans compared to typical alternatives like Apple.

5. Is An iPhone Sustainable?

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The iPhone 15 Pro has a carbon footprint of 66 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents, which raises concerns about its environmental impact.
Despite efforts by Apple to mitigate emissions through the use of recycled materials and clean energy solutions, the sheer volume of iPhones produced results in significant overall emissions.
Therefore, while Apple's sustainability initiatives are commendable, the iPhone's environmental footprint remains a considerable concern.

6. Are Samsung Phones Sustainable?

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Samsung phones have received recognition for sustainability efforts, such as the Sustainable Product Award at the 2022 SEAL Business Stability Awards.
While Samsung emphasizes energy efficiency, repairability, and after-sales networks, it still faces scrutiny regarding ethical practices, as indicated by its low Ethical Rating from The Good Shopping Guide.
In comparison to Apple, Samsung may excel in certain aspects like repair and energy efficiency, but both companies have ongoing commitments to sustainability with areas for improvement.

7. Which Is More Energy-efficient LED or LCD?

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Apple and Samsung both strive for sustainability, but Apple seems to have a more proactive approach.
Samsung's recent strides in using recycled materials show progress, yet Apple's commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030 and efforts to reduce hazardous chemicals stand out.
While both companies have room for improvement, Apple's initiatives suggest a stronger dedication to environmental concerns, potentially making it the more sustainable choice for conscientious consumers.

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References πŸ’‘

  1. Amend, C., Revellio, F., Tenner, I., & Schaltegger, S. (2022). The potential of modular product design on repair behavior and user experience–Evidence from the smartphone industry. Journal of Cleaner Production, 367, 132770. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.132770‍
  2. Belkhir, L., & Elmeligi, A. (2018). Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production, 177, 448-463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.239‍
  3. Deloitte, Lee, P., & Bucaille, A. (2022, February 25). Getting Smart About Sustainability: Smartphones And The Environment. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/deloitte/2022/02/25/getting-smart-about-sustainability-smartphones-and-the-environment/?sh=24580a6a6c46‍
  4. European Commission Directorate-General for Environment. (2023, February 15). Sustainable smartphones? Modular design promotes do-it-yourself repair to extend device life [Press release]. https://environment.ec.europa.eu/news/sustainable-smartphones-modular-design-promotes-do-it-yourself-repair-extend-device-life-2023-02-15_en‍
  5. Gibbs, S. (2023, July 15). Sustainable smartphones calling? The eco-friendly new design rules to extend the life of your handset. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/jul/15/sustainable-smartphones-calling-the-eco-friendly-new-design-rules-to-extend-the-life-of-your-handset‍
  6. Honest Mobile. (2020, August 25). What's the carbon footprint of my smartphone? Retrieved from https://honestmobile.com/blog/2020/08/25/whats-the-carbon-footprint-of-my-smartphone‍
  7. How do different smartphone models compare in terms of carbon emissions? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/advice/0/how-do-different-smartphone-models-compare
  8. Naughton, J. (2021, September 18). Want to save the Earth? Then don’t buy that shiny new iPhone. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/18/want-to-save-the-earth-then-dont-buy-that-shiny-new-iphone

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