Do green phones cost more green or are they smarter smart phones?

Last week, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my mobile phone. I was surprised to see that it hadn’t closed properly. It wouldn’t close, so I tried to open it instead, and as I did, the phone broke apart into two pieces as the hinge came apart. My mates asked, “Since when do mobile phones have hinges?” I responded that it was quite popular with flip phones when I first bought my Motorola W755 https://www.motorola.com/moto_care/manuals/W_Series/W755_UG.pdf. But of course, that purchase was in 2008. So after over 6 years with the same phone, I was faced with the decision of finding a replacement mobile phone.
Motorola W755 Broken 2 Mobilephone
Yet this mishap gave me pause for thought about sustainable practices. Did I really need another mobile phone? Do I need to be that connected all the time or should I be a bit off the grid? Should I be spending resources on another mobile phone and an associated usage plan? I decided that it was important to be available to family and friends for important matters. Also, it seemed as if most my friends and business associates had mobile phones to reach me, so there were considerations to comply with those standards and expectations. So I concluded that I needed a replacement mobile, yet I was hoping to do this more sustainability. Naturally, this started me to do some research to find out what sustainable mobile phones were available.

Fortunately, I remembered a workshop presentation last March 2014 on Fairphone (www.fairphone.com) and its catch phrases “A seriously cool smart phone. Putting social values first” and “We’re putting social values first and opening up the supply chain. One step at a time.” I read more about how their product was sustainably respectful regarding mining, design, manufacturing, life cycle, and social entrepreneurship, as well as being technologically competitive with other mobile phones. So I decided this would be a more responsible alternative to replace my old phone. Yet when I went to purchase the relatively pricey 300 Euro mobile phone, the website noted that deliveries were restricted to Europe and delivery time is one to four months after placing the order. Unfortunately, these limitations ruled out this option since I didn’t live in Europe and I was looking for a replacement now. Thus, my quest continued for another phone.

As a start, I researched and found a recent May 2014 article on the sustainable smart phone market (http://recode.net/2014/05/02/smartphones-and-emerging-markets-making-the-mobile-revolution-sustainable/) and a posting entitled “Get smart: Pick a greener smart phone” (http://www.pahomepage.com/story/d/story/get-smart-pick-a-greener-smart-phone/23676/tkCOv678h0uxhM6_jRxBQQ), This latter posting focused on 4 qualities: (1) Make sure the phone has a high eco-rating; (2) Battery must last longer than your common usage; (3) Must come with a trade-in recycling program; and (4) Green accessories available. Most importantly, it referenced the global organization Underwriters Laboratory’s mobile phone “best practices” UL ISR 110 standard which “provides manufacturers with a way to showcase environmental leadership and product stewardship in an increasingly competitive hi-tech industry.” Similar to Fairphone operating conditions, this UL standard ensured that mobile devices: (1) contain environmentally preferable materials; (2) are manufactured using environmentally and socially responsible practices; (3) are recyclable at end-of-life; (4) make use of recycled and recyclable packaging; (5) have minimal environmental impact; (6) have minimal human health risks; (7) perform efficiently; and (8) demonstrate innovation in sustainable manufacturing. All this sounded reasonable.

UL Environment also provides a “certification” under its UL ISR 110 multi-attribute standard (http://site.ul.com/global/eng/pages/offerings/businesses/environment/services/spc/mobile/). To achieve this certification, a mobile phone must earn at least 60 of the available points (score of 55%). Devices earning 80 points (score of 73%) or more are eligible to receive platinum level certification. Their criteria are as follows:
Requirement Category Points
Materials 15
Manufacturing and Operations 18
Health and Environment 27
Packaging 13
Energy Use 24
EOL Management & Life Extension 12

Yet, I also learned that a company having eco-friendly specs on a product is not necessarily conclusive that the product is sustainable. For example, the US Company Verizon Wireless does include an “ECO Specs label” section for certain products on its website (http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/consumer/eco-specs.html). However, the company notes that this ECO Specs label is Not a rating system, but only an overview of how certain products measure to 5 factors Verizon recognizes as key to being eco-conscious. They also acknowledge that this label is only available for certain products, but “all cell phones, tablets, and accessories“ would have this label “at a later date.” Verizon’s 5 key factors are: (1) The % of recycled content or FSC/SFI paper used in the packaging; (2) The % of recycled content in the Verizon Wireless Device; (3) Meets Verizon Wireless requirements for lack of industry-recognized hazardous toxins in the plastics and batteries; (4) Meets Verizon Wireless requirements for how efficiently the device uses energy; and (5) Meets Verizon Wireless requirements for the recyclability of the device and its components.

As an example, they rated the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini ECO Specs as follows:
Box:
•Recycled Content – 100%
• FSC or SFI Content – 0%
Device Plastics:
•Recycled Content – 0%
Energy Efficient: Yes*
Toxins Free–Battery RoHS Compliant: Yes*
Toxins Free–Device Plastics: Yes*
Recyclability of Device: Yes*

When I saw that the device plastics itself had 0% recycled content and the label didn’t mention device metals, I started to wonder about this product in light of all that was being done for Fairphone. Also, I noticed that the Apple iPhone 5S did not even have the ECO Specs label yet on their website. So my conclusion was that there is still a lack of consistency and consensus about what is truly eco-conscious and how to identify these features across the mobile phone market.

In some cases, the product itself may not be very eco-friendly, but the company at least has a product recycling program or packaging program that is eco-friendly. For example, Apple launched an iPhone trade-in scheme in the UK in 2013, in which Apple’s recycling programme gives a £175 discount off a new one (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/oct/15/apple-iphone-trade-in-scheme-uk).

I continued to read various articles which rated the different smart phones, products, and services, including “Which smartphones and tablets are the greenest?” (http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/eco-friendly-smartphones-and-tablets/#!biymKQ); “5-of-the-greenest-smartphones” (http://www.ecopedia.com/technology/5-of-the-greenest-smartphones/); “Different Shades of Green: Three Eco-Friendly Smartphones” (http://www.examiner.com/article/different-shades-of-green-three-eco-friendly-smartphones); Green Mobile Landline & Broadband (http://www.greenmobile.co.uk/; http://www.actionsustainability.com/resources/31/Green-Mobile–Britians-Greenest-Telephone-Company/); and Vodaphone’s eco-rating system (http://www.vodafone.com/content/sustainability/operating_responsibly/customers_and_the_environment.html).

In the end, I realized that we need to be careful not to “put sustainability on the back burner due to the economic climate” http://www.actionsustainability.com/news/617/Monumental-mistake-for-university-sector-buyers-to-forget-sustainability-during-austerity/ when buying a mobile phone, so I did buy what was characterized as an eco-friendly smart phone, but it still depends on how you measure eco-friendly (e.g., which may include packaging and certifications). I could possibly have done better if I waited four months to replace my phone, but economics and timing did play a necessary role in my decision. So perhaps there needs to be a better way for suppliers to meet a higher demand for smarter green phones at a competitive price. In the meantime, it seems like individuals must research and delve through the various standards, ratings, media reviews, and marketing to make our best choice.

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2 Responses to Do green phones cost more green or are they smarter smart phones?

  1. rbp046 says:

    Hi Hotelchocam, there’s wider interest here too around the level of precious materials such as gold and iridium that are used in delivering ever faster and smaller technology and what happens to not just mobile phones, but most computing equipment once it reaches the end of its useful life. There’s a significant value to Urban mining and the article below whilst a little old (same vintage as your broken phone), I believe is still relevant today. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2008/04/27/uk-japan-metals-recycling-idUKT13528020080427
    When I saw your post I wanted to get an understanding of exactly what the value of a phone was at the end of its life and found the following site which has a number of neat graphics breaking things down. A couple of dollars of raw materials per iphone (copper, gold, silver, aluminium and platinum) the rest is just a maths exercise for scale. http://www.electronicproducts.com/Computer_Systems/Standalone_Mobile/How_much_precious_metal_is_in_your_iPhone.aspx All interesting stuff but maybe the most startling point that surprised me and that supports your blog is that only 1% of rare earth minerals are recycled. The article claims that “there are no really good environmentally friendly methods available to mine and to recycle rare earths, so economically, today recycling is not viable”. You’d think that by 2013 (article date) we’d collectively be a bit further forward.

    • hotelchocam says:

      Hello rbp046, Thanks so much for your response and the additional citations. Yes, I agree that prevcious metals issue is vital, yet it is not always highlighted. For the ECO Specs labeling, I was struck by the focus on “recycled plastics” as in indicia, but not on recycled materials in general. So on an initial reading, focusing on recycled plastics sounded rather good, but then it begins to pale when you hear what groups like Fairphone are discussing about conflict-free materials, mining, and recycling. We may have come further but perhaps not as far as we should be by now as you noted.

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