The dark truths of the smartphone industry and how we can fix them

Do you want a smartphone that doesn’t cost the earth? This is how Fairphone tackles e-waste, environmental damage and exploitation.

Mobile phones will outnumber humans by two to one over the next two years, reaching a staggering 18 billion by 2025.

Of the approximately 1.5 billion phones sold each year, only 20% are recycled.

Most of us are aware of this growing mountain of e-waste and its opposite: mines where human rights are buried in search of the minerals we need for our smartphones.

But with phones at the center of our lives, in our hands most of the day, it’s convenient to ignore the damage they do. The woes of the mobile phone industry may seem like just another way our daily consumption wreaks havoc from afar, like our appetite for avocadoor propensity for fast fashion.

but there is another way. Even in this globalized system, there’s room to be an ethical consumer, and there’s a phone that’s far ahead in environmental and social metrics: the Fairphone.

Launched by a Dutch social enterprise in 2012, the phone’s unique selling point is that its parts are accessible – and therefore repairable – with a screwdriver.

Fairphone has also taken great care to source all of its material parts as consciously as possible.

With EU Green Week shedding light on circular economywe sat down with Fairphones Impact Innovation Director, Monique Lempers, to get an inside perspective on the industry.

What is the climate impact of the short lifespan of our phones?

Unfortunately, the average time a user currently uses their phone is only between two and three years, Lempers says.

Since the largest part of CO2 emissions from a phone are released in the production stage – about 75% – this fleeting property has an immense impact, he says.

Fairphone is looking to extend a phone’s lifespan by more than five years, then double the average lifespan currently.

He’s doing this by making his modular device easily repairable. We have YouTube videos of kids fixing it in two minutes, she says. So it really should be possible for anyone. You can also replace new components, such as an upgraded camera module.

In 2022, Fairphone estimates it avoided 999 tonnes of CO2, largely due to the longer service life of its phones. These are the emissions that 650 Dutch households would create in one year through the consumption of electricity. Or more than 500 tons of burnt coal.

How can you make your phone last longer?

Lemper’s first piece of advice is to resist the seduction of advertising. Easier said than done when the new brighter iphone looms over us on billboards offering ever better specs. But, she says, often the technical difference isn’t that big, especially in recent years the phones have become quite comparable.

Repairing damaged phones might be less expensive than you think, she adds, and it can make your phone as good as new. And if your phone isn’t working so well anymore, updating the software or trying a new battery are some more sustainable steps before buying a new one.

So obviously, it’s really crucial to maintain and protect your phone well, she says. There are a lot of precious metals in there and a lot of work has gone into making your phone.

So it’s important that we appreciate it as the valuable product it is.

What is the dark side of the phone industry?

Read more about these precious products: Around 60 different minerals and metals flow into our smartphones from all over the world, making up various components. Gold, for example, is present in over 20 different components in a phone.

Lemper sees two really dark truths in the smartphone industry. One is that he is forgetting the millions of people who mine these elements, often under extremely dangerous conditions.

We have to take responsibility as an industry, he says. This is why Fairphone was created: to open up the supply chain and uncover those dark truths behind our supply chain and then also deliver solutions and prove you can do it differently.

The company has identified 14 materials of interest that it seeks to obtain in a recycled form or source from fair mines.

Fairphone does not bypass countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] where conflict minerals they are plentiful. We also think mineral extraction can really help poor local communities benefit from these mineral demands, Lemper explains.

But they make sure that cobalt, for example, comes from mines that support development and don’t contribute to armed conflict.

Most of the manufacturing takes place in China, where most of the phone’s components are made. Once again, Fairphone thinks it can make a positive impact in the country by using its purchasing power to improve conditions for workers on the assembly line.

Tackling e-waste

The other dark truth is that e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream worldwide, Lemper says. This is because we are used to disposing of our electronic devices before they have been put to optimal use.

Furthermore, e-waste is not treated well. Of the 20% harvested, they were only able to extract between 30 and 50% of the minerals and the rest is either burned or sent to landfills.

Fairphone is trying to inspire the industry to do better. Its latest model, the Fairphone 4, is zero e-waste, meaning that for every phone sold, another end-of-life phone or equivalent e-waste it is reused or recycled through his efforts.

How to make the telephony industry circular?

The company has a take-back program for old phone components, which is currently only available in Germany and France, but will soon be extended to other countries.

And it continues to pioneer the smartphone space; experimenting with a new service where Fairphones can be rented rather than sold for a monthly fee.

The Fairphone Easy approach incentivizes consumers to keep their phone longer, reducing this fee over time. By making the company the owner of the phones, it also rewards them for extending the life of the phones with sustainable parts.

Lemper describes it as an ideal circular business model.

Watch the video above to learn more about the impact of cell phones.

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