The smartphone Fairphone 4 is finally available in the United States. The phone, lauded for its sustainability, is user-repairable and made with responsibly-sourced materials like Fairtrade-certified gold and aluminum from suppliers certified by the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI).
Like many other smartphones, the Fairphone 4 has front and back cameras, an LCD touchscreen, Near Field Communication technology that allows contactless payments via mobile wallets, and even a fingerprint scanner. It also offers at least five years of software support, assuring users that they’ll be providing updates for years to come.
Given that smartphones are the most widely used electronic device around the world, efforts to reduce their environmental impact are important, says Gregory A. Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.
Emerging trends and technologies often create consumer demand for newer models with better features, even though older phones still function. Smartphones are a significant electronic waste stream in the US with around 151 million products being thrown away annually, and only about 17 percent are properly treated and recycled.
The impact of smartphones on the environment
Smartphones may be small enough to fit in your pocket, but their carbon emissions likely surpass that of desktop computers, laptops, and LCDs. For instance, the iPhone 14 Pro contributes 65 kilograms of carbon emissions throughout its life cycle, which is equivalent to driving about 167 miles in an average gasoline-powered passenger vehicle, says Keoleian.
About 80 percent of a smartphone’s carbon footprint is generated during the manufacturing stage. Mining, refining, and transporting precious metals consume a lot of energy, while the act of mining itself harms the natural environment. That’s why, Keoleian says there may be no such thing as a sustainable smartphone. “Every smartphone has impacts related to their manufacture and use, and opportunities exist to further reduce these impacts,” he says.
Consumers can reduce environmental harm by replacing devices less frequently or opting for refurbished phones instead, says Keoleian. Refurbished phones, or pre-owned devices that were restored to “like new” condition and verified to function properly, are cheaper as well. Refurbished iPhone 12 products, which completed full functional testing and come with their standard one-year limited warranty, cost about $120 to $240 lower than new ones.
Joy Scrogum, assistant scientist of sustainability at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, says that manufacturers make more money if consumers believe they need the latest smartphone models. For example, Apple and Samsung, the two companies that currently dominate the smartphone industry, both release new phone models every year. These often come with specs that were improved from the previous model: better camera system, longer battery, performance upgrade of the graphics card, and more.
However, Scrogum says this belief is not always reflective of reality. “Most people probably don’t use all the processing power or features of their current phone, let alone what they might find on the latest smartphone models,” she adds.
Smartphone users have to reassess whether they really need an upgrade. According to Scrogum, she bought her current smartphone when her now 18-year-old daughter started middle school. Although a few retailer apps are no longer compatible with the device, it’s “not a big deal” and the phone still functions well, she says.
“Would I like a better camera on my phone?,” says Scrogum. “Sure, but that’s not really a need. My phone still does everything I need it to do, and plenty of things I don’t really need, like providing games to play.” She adds that she’ll get a new phone when apps she regularly relies on stop being compatible with the device, but in that case, it’s not that the phone isn’t useful anymore—it’s because app developers stopped making the latest versions of their software compatible with the oldest devices still in service.
How manufacturers can practice sustainability
The best thing manufacturers can do to make devices more sustainable is to design them for repairability and upgradability, says Scrogum. Having components that can be easily removed and replaced is important because it allows consumers to fix issues and upgrade features without having to replace the entire phone.
“In other words, plan for durability rather than obsolescence,” she adds. “Keep in mind that phones which are designed to be easier to take apart for repair are also easier to disassemble at their end-of-life so components and materials can be reused or recycled.”
Smartphones will also remain in service longer with more equitable access to the tools and information needed for repairs and upgrades. Scrogum says manufacturers can restrict access to replacement parts or tools to control repair through their own authorized technicians, but the cost or proximity to such service providers may be a barrier for some folks.
“When manufacturers make it easier for people to perform DIY repairs and modifications, or to use an independent repair service, they’re making repair a viable option for more people and supporting a more circular economy,” says Scrogum.
Policy support is also crucial. New York passed a Right to Repair law last year that covers smartphones. It ensures that the diagnostic and repair information for digital electronic products available to authorized repair providers is also made available by manufacturers to consumers and independent repair services. Companies like Samsung, Google, and Apple have also established programs allowing consumers and independent repair providers to buy official parts.
Policies requiring standardization of common components may also help consumers keep their smartphones around longer. The European Union recently passed legislation that requires a USB-C charging port for phones and other small- and medium-sized devices like tablets and e-readers by 2024. A mandatory universal charger was established to help reduce the generation of electronic waste. The rule also unbundles chargers with electronic devices, allowing consumers to forgo them when buying a new product and save about $280 million annually on unnecessary charger purchases.
“When in doubt, the ‘greenest’ device is the one you already own, or one previously owned by someone else,” says Scrogum. “We need to keep products in useful service for as long as possible.”