The sustainability of Smartphones: Fairphone

by Vittorio Esposito

Introduction

Smartphones, since the advent of the first iPhone back in 2007, quickly became more and more important in our everyday life, establishing themselves as being the largest electronic market in  the past two decades, with 1.4 billion smartphones sold yearly worldwide, with an average lifespan of 2.7 years (Bento, 2016, Paiano et al., 2013, cited in Haucke, 2018; Gouwens, 2020;  Chau & Ryan, 2020, cited in van den Heuvel, 2020). However, this explosive growth puts more  and more pressure on the planet, being a great obstacle towards sustainable development,  since, for example, an iPhone 6 accounts for a total of 95 kg CO2eq, without even accounting for  the use of servers and networks (Suckling & Lee, 2015). It has been estimated that by 2040,  communication technology will account for 14% of the global environmental footprint  (Fairphone, n.d.). To put this into perspective, within the transport sector (which is responsible  for 30% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions, of which 72% comes from road transportation), the  global car industry is responsible for 13% of annual global CO2 emissions in the EU (European  Parliament, 2019).  

Figure 1: Smartphones sold in 2020  

Planned and Perceived Obsolescence 

As explained by Wernink and Strahl (2015), seeing smartphones as an essential commodity caused disregard towards their human and environmental costs, which includes conflict materials, environmental problems, and an increase in e-waste, among others. One of the causes of the ever increasing environmental impacts of smartphones can be attributed to planned  obsolescence, which can be defined as “purposefully creating inferior products to drive sales” (OCC, 2021a). 

Planned obsolescence occurs when company manufacturers build a phone designed to fail before its realistic lifespan, whereas, perceived obsolescence happens when a company release new versions of their phones, and they market the old one in a way that the consumer perceives  as obsolete, even when that isn’t at all the reality. Through both of those practices, companies  put an extreme strain on the planet that has drastic consequences on waste streams and climate  change (OCC, 2021a). One example of both of these is Apple: “from brittle parts that  break easily, to glued-in batteries you can’t replace  to aesthetic upgrades that take the previous version out of fashion” (Our Changing Climate, 2021:X; The Guardian, 2017; Wired, 2011). The  crucial aspect of this is that companies like Apple utilise these unnecessary practices for the sole purpose of maximising profit, building “death clocks” into their products. If they genuinely  wanted the average customer to continue using their phone, then they would offer longer warranties, create more durable, easily repairable tech (ibid.). 

When asked about this exact issue, in an interview conducted by David Peck, Bas van Abel (co founder) said: “We are not in the market to try to sell as many phones as possible. I think we’re  trying to build a quality product that the user will be able to use for a long time and enjoy for a  long time. Are we going to be able to sustain that business model? I think so. […] I don’t think  they need to be replaced every year or every two years, that is the current model, […] even if we  are going to sell maybe fewer phones than the rest of the industry is trying to do, I think we can  still compete very happily in this business” (Peck, 2016) 

      Conflict Minerals  

A crucial aspect related to smartphones and technology in general regards its production, and  in particular the process behind gathering the materials necessary to create a smartphone. Due to many causes, some of which possibly attributable to globalisation and capitalism, it is common to find that a big percentage of the world’s minerals come from developing countries, where as much as 83% of the global workforce relies on small scale mines to survive (Wernink  and Strahl, 2015; Voss, 2020). Most of them are in precarious, vulnerable conditions, with the  Covid-19 aspect just enhancing this vulnerability. Often, these countries are hugely dependent on these natural resources, and their extraction often leads to conflicts over the control of these  mines. Conflict minerals are thus defined as minerals “whose control, exploitation, trade, taxation,  or protection contribute to, or benefit from the context of, armed conflict” (Le Billon, 2003:216,  cited in Wernink and Strahl, 2015). To give one example, the very same minerals that are used to create our smartphones are responsible for a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo,  where forced labour, child labour, armed conflict, and corruption are just some of the  consequences (ibid.).  

This is where Fairphone decided to intervene. However, Fairphone’s mission to ‘establish secure,  traceable and reliable supply chains’ and their goal to ‘create a movement for a fairer tomorrow  at every step of the supply chain’ (Voss, 2020:n.p.) is not the first instance of a company or  government trying to do something about it. In fact, back in 2009, the Dutch organisation Time  to Turn and the European coalition makeITfair published a report based on exactly that, focusing  on supply chain, and concluding that no fair mobile phones were present in the market (Van der  Velden, 2014).  

Fairphone’s situation can be better explained in the words of Bas van Abel, its founder, that  stated in an interview that “systems have been set up to actually punish companies if they don’t  comply with certain sustainability rules in the supply chain. Just to give you an example, […] we  work in Congo, in mines where we make sure that we bag and tag the minerals so that we know that there’s no rebels making money from it, so that we’re not fueling conflicts. It’s fantastic, but  I’m 100% sure that we still have child labor in our supply chain. Why? because we work in Congo.  Being able to talk about that makes it possible to actually go to Congo, change the situation there  and we know that most of the reserves of our minerals are actually in those countries. So we’ll  have to find a way to improve the situation over there, where it’s already hard and you can only  do that by being there” (ChangeNOW, 2020). 

Aim and Research Questions  

The overarching aim of this paper is to examine the ecological footprint of regular smartphones  and compare that to the Fairphone . More specifically, the aim is to offer insight into how sustainable Fairphone is, and identify ‘hotspots’ where the biggest environmental impacts take place .  

The research questions identified for the study are the following: 

• How sustainable Fairphone is compared to mainstream smartphones?  • What is the environmental impact of choosing to switch to Fairphone

Methodology 

In order to achieve that, it will be necessary to gather the most relevant information for the  environmental impacts of smartphones. This will be done based on literature review of LCA  reports, academic papers and Master thesis, Impact reports of the smartphones in question,  video essays, documentaries, and video lectures relevant to the topic, and such. A desk study  was performed in order to gather the most evidence possible towards the study, which included  a literature review, that in turn aided the theoretical background and research for the study.  Regarding the documents, the literature was found by utilising search engines such as Google  Scholar or the KTH Library website, by looking for keywords, and by going through the the  articles and documents which were cited by or related to the core documents.

Results  

The impacts of a smartphone on the planet 

In order to address the increasing human and environmental costs of technology, many  sustainable alternatives to mainstream smartphones originated throughout the years (Dave  Hakkens’ Phoneblocks, Google’s Project Ara, or the Puzzlephone), but before Fairphone, there  wasn’t one who was truly successful (Wernink and Strahl, 2015; van den Heuvel, 2020). Their  objective is, consequentially, to be a “sustainability leader in a complex sector that poses major  leadership challenges for a small social enterprise” (Hacke, 2017:56), encouraging transparency  and raising awareness for the often unclear life cycle of smartphones (Fairphone, n.d.). 

Figure 2: GHG Emissions in the Life Cycle of a  

Smartphone (Suckling & Lee, 2015). 

From the available literature on the Life Cycle of smartphones, it is shown that among the four  phases (Extraction & Manufacturing, Transport, Use, End of Life), production driven impacts  (E&M) are the biggest contributors to GHG emissions, about four times bigger than the use  phase, without considering server and network impacts in the scope. When Server and Network  impacts are added to the scope, the GHG emissions increase greatly, mostly in the use phase  (Suckling & Lee, 2015; Ercan et al, 2016; Proske et al, 2020). Studies show that reuse and  remanufacture is key to reducing GHG emissions, and that the return of the phones “could result  in a reduction in impact by best reuse potential and further reduction in toxic emissions through  inappropriate disposal” (Suckling & Lee, 2015:1181). However, reliance on the costumer to drive  the process represents the biggest obstacle in that sense.  

Bas Van Abel (Founder) 

“We still suffer from Electronic Anorexia. In a way, we want our phones thinner and thinner, but  just knowing that your phone is a thin phone, means that your battery will be glued to the  inside. That’s a result of something that we want and has been marketed, so the more we think  about, just ask yourself: “Why can’t I open my phone? Why do i need to pay a lot of money to  replace the battery? Why do i just toss it in the drawer as the battery goes down?”. Just ask  yourself these questions that are related to the design of the phone, and maybe your view on  how products aesthetically are designed also changes. That is not just about aesthetics but it’s  also about that design and the way we [Fairphone] make things is actually designed in a way  that ecology has been taken into account and that you perceive as something more beautiful.” (Levi Hildebrand, 2021).

  Figure 3: Relative impact per year use for the impact  

category GWP (Proske et al.,2020) 

                   The Fairphone Model 

According to Wernink and Strahl (2015) what differentiates Fairphone from other “mainstream”  smart phones is its aspiration to make a positive impact on the industry, supporting and  implementing a business model based on what’s ethical and fair, social change, as opposed to  technological advancement or financial growth. As Miquel Ballester (Co-Founder) put it, “ [it]  feels a lot like navigating against the currents of the industry” (OCC, 2021b).  

Bas Van Abel (Founder) 

“If you want to create a fair phone you have to create world peace first. […] If you want  to change the system, by becoming part of the system, that means that you’re going  to be dictated by the same system.” (OCC, 2021b). 

Their idea is that their actions will, in turn, encourage the entire industry to make a positive  change. An example of Fairphone’s attempt at encouraging transparency and sustainability is  their annual impact reports, which include a breakdown of exactly where the money spent for  their products go (Figure 4 below). It is immediately apparent that only 1% of the money actually  represents the profit, while 83% goes towards covering production costs and taxes, operating  costs, and campaigns, and 16% goes towards product development and research (Fairphone,  n.d.). The Fairphone model relies on waiting for larger manufacturing companies to innovate their product, and once they havemcome down in price, its added to the Fairphone, thus focusing on making sure that the materials are ethically sourced and last long time. (Levi Hildebrand, 2021)

Figure 4: Cost breakdown of the Fairphone 3  

(Fairphone, n.d.).

How does Fairphone compare to other smartphones? 

In order to assess the sustainability of the Fairphone, it is necessary to consider four different  aspects: Production, Modularity, Longevity, and Recyclability. Production represents the stage  where the most emissions come from, but compared to flagship phones such as the iPhone 12,  the Fairphone 3 emits about half as much CO2e (39,5 kg) (OCC, 2021b). The reason why  modularity is so important is due to the fact that the core module accounts for 72% of the GWP  or the whole phone, according to its life cycle assessment (ibid.). This means that, by just  replacing one specific part that is broken with another instead of buying another phone, the  CO2 emission reduction is immense, which was confirmed by Miquel Ballester, Co-Founder of  Fairphone, who said: “Don’t buy a new phone buy a new camera, because really changing the  camera of your phone is 6% of the CO2 emissions of the whole device” (OCC, 2021b:n.p.).  Another area where Fairphone is immensely reducing emissions is transport. In fact, since the  phone is only sold in Europe, the shipping is done by train, which cuts down emissions by 87%  compared to airplanes (ibid.). However, transporting by train might be a solution now, since it  only ships to Europe, but if Fairphone wants to ship outside Europe this solution won’t work  anymore.  

In the Figure 5 below it is possible to see a comparison among the top seller smartphones in  2020 and Fairphone 3+. The Shiftphone has been added since it is another modular phone  which can be argued to be one of the competitors of Fairphone when it comes to sustainable  smartphones. At first glance, it is possible to notice how, price wise, Fairphone is not among the  cheapest phones (which are Samsung Galaxy A21s and Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro). This difference can be explained in the sense that in return to a slightly higher investment, which is  still half compared to the iPhone 12, one receives in return the guarantee of a product that is fair  and transparent, where everyone who has worked on it has been paid fairly and created with the  most sustainable material possible, which is something that can’t be guaranteed by other  companies (van den Heuvel, 2020). In terms of repair cost however, Fairphone seems to be at  the top of the class together with the Shiftphone and Samsung Galaxy A21s. In this category, the  worst smartphone seems to be the two Apple phones, Samsung Galaxy S20+ and the Xiaomi,  with display costs that can reach more than 235 euros. For Samsung and Apple the costs have  been considered with the assumption that the consumer would buy the insurance (e.g. AppleCare); without such insurance, the costs skyrocket. In terms of the more technical aspects,  the Fairphone 3+ with the introduction of a new camera, seems to be in line with the others.  However, the idea of the Fairphone is that it doesn’t matter if another phone has a slightly better  camera quality, because that’s not the priority. The priority instead is to have a phone that is  sustainable and ethically made, as van den Heuvel (2020:14) writes: “They are not in need of the  best specs, they just want a smartphone that is durable. […] Consumers pay extra for the mission  of Fairphone. There is a group of […] consumers that is fine by paying extra for this mission since  they care less about the technical specifications”.

Figure 5: Fairphone compared to best selling smartphones in 2020

Obstacles  

Unfortunately, Fairphone is not without its downsides. In terms of lifespan, Fairphone is doing its  best to reach their goal to support phones up to 7 years old, but due to factors outside their  control such as hardware and software updates, right now they are only supporting phones up  to 5 years old (OCC, 2021b). This is best described by Monique Lempers, Impact Innovation  Director at Fairphone: “We are swimming against the streams there, with building a long lasting  phone. […] Certain components become end of life before our product becomes end of life.  Also at software level, we have to find workarounds to stretch the software. It’s an incredible  challenge”(OCC, 2021b:n.p.). However, they are building a recycling and repair network for any  phone, to either recycle or refurbish it, and Fairphone itself is made 45,1% of recycled materials,  which they are working on improving, especially since their objective is to reach net-zero impact  (ibid.).  

Van den Heuvel (2020) collected feedback from a variety of consumers and showed the cluster  of reasons why consumers might not buy Fairphone. Of the ones in Figure 6, some stand out, in  particular ‘Fairphone lacks technical specifications’, which is the third biggest negative feedback  with 13,4%. This cluster of answers relates to the Fairphone 3, but with the advent of Fairphone  3+ the technical specifications of the Fairphone were raised a lot with the introduction of new  camera modules, which bring it on par with the other mainstream smartphones. However, the  mission of Fairphone is not to put technical specifications the first priority, on the other hand,  sustainability, ethics, and fairness are considered the first and foremost priority. Thus, the fact  that the phone is ‘just fine’ is exactly the point. Consumers don’t, or shouldn’t care about the  amount of megapixels and how slim it is before everything else, but instead they are choosing  to support a mission towards a more sustainable future. 

Figure 6: Clusters of reasons of why costumers might not purchase a Fairphone (van den Heuvel, 2020)

Conclusion 

Fairphone’s objective to revolutionise the smartphone industry and tackle issues such as  planned and perceived obsolescence, conflict minerals, GHG emissions, the exploitation of  workers all around the world, is definitely no small task, and in order to accomplish it a lot still  has to be done. However, given the impact of smartphones on the planet in terms of emissions  and exploitation of people’s lives, the time to act on it is running out. By being transparent about  how Fairphone is made and its impact, hopefully more and more people will start to notice the  impact of their choice, and how a small decision to choose a sustainable phone could  accomplish so much. It has to be said that one of the biggest takeaways from the results is that  no matter how small the carbon footprint of what you’re about to purchase, the most sustainable  phone is the one you have in your pocket.  

The Consumentenbond (2019) reviewed the Fairphone 3 and came to the following conclusion:  

‘The Fairphone 3 is not fantastic, it is just okay. And that is not enough to keep most  consumers happy for years to come. And that is precisely what is most sustainable:  buying a new phone less often. As a result, the Fairphone 3 is mainly for consumers  who do not care about the latest technology, a modern look, great cameras and up to-date software.’ (van den Heuvel, 2020).

            References 

ChangeNOW, 2020. Planetary boundaries | Bas van Abel (Fairphone). URL: http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=efSTp9ltGuA&list=TLPQMjYwMzIwMjHrEa2x6kLcqQ&index=4 

European Parliament, 2019. CO2 emissions from cars: facts and figures (infographics) [WWW  Document]. URL https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/ 20190313STO31218/co2-emissions-from-cars-facts-and-figures-infographics (accessed 3.16.21). 

Ercan, M., Malmodin, J., Bergmark, P., Kimfalk, E., Nilsson, E., 2016. Life Cycle Assessment of a  Smartphone, in: Proceedings of ICT for Sustainability 2016. Presented at the ICT for Sustainability  2016, Atlantis Press, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.2991/ict4s-16.2016.15 

Fairphone, n.d. Fairphone Impact Report Vol. 2. [WWW Document]. URL http:// impact.fairphone.com/ (accessed 3.11.21). 

Haucke, F.V., 2018. Smartphone-enabled social change: Evidence from the Fairphone case?  Journal of Cleaner Production 197, 1719–1730. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.07.014 

Levi Hildebrand, 2021. Is The Fairphone Legit? (Fairphone 3 Plus Review). URL:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBOaJyya0jE 

Our Changing Climate (OCC), 2021a. Is This the Most Sustainable Smartphone?. URL:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ebv3GiKyCaw&list=TLPQMjYwMzIwMjHrEa2x6kLcqQ&index=1 

Our Changing Climate (OCC), 2021b. Planned Obsolescence Sucks. Here’s Why It Still  Exists.URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzWU7D0S9_8&list=TLPQMTgwMzIwMjFBwyN1- yeNwA&index=2 

Peck, D., 2016. Circular Economy: an introduction. CircularX 2015 3.3 The Fairphone philosophy:  product life extension. 

Proske, M., Finkbeiner, M., 2020. Obsolescence in LCA–methodological challenges and solution  approaches. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 495–507. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01710-x 

Suckling, J., Lee, J., 2015. Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones?. Int  J Life Cycle Assess 20, 1181–1196. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-015-0909-4 

The Guardian, 2017. Apple admits slowing older iPhones because of ageing batteries [WWW  Document], 2017. URL http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/21/apple-admits slowing-older-iphones-because-of-flagging-batteries (accessed 3.18.21). 

Van Der Velden, 2014. RE-POLITICISING PARTICIPATORY DESIGN: WHAT CAN WE LEARN  FROM FAIRPHONE. Paper presented at the Ninth International Conference on Culture and  Technology and Communication (CaTaC), Oslo, Norway, 19-20 June, 2014 

van den Heuvel, J., 2020. Master Thesis Strategic Product Design Barriers and triggers in the  process of purchasing a Fairphone. Delft University of Technology. 

Voss, T., 2020. Let’s make fair, sustainable mining the new normal [WWW Document]. Fairphone.  URL https://www.fairphone.com/en/2020/06/23/oecd-call-to-action/ (accessed 3.27.21). 

Wernink, T., Strahl, C., 2015. Fairphone: Sustainability from the Inside-Out and Outside-In, in:  D’heur, M. (Ed.), Sustainable Value Chain Management, CSR, Sustainability, Ethics & Governance.  Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp. 123–139. https://doi.org/ 

10.1007/978-3-319-12142-0_3 Wired, 2011. How Apple Is Screwing Your iPhone. URL: https://www.wired.com/2011/01/apple is-screwing-your-iphone/

Published by Impala Global

Our goal is to ensure that the global health and human rights implications of technology are considered to ensure an inclusive future.

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