A growing number of smartphone manufacturers are making sustainable and eco-phone claims. How green are the phones, really? Should you get one?
When was the last time you upgraded your smartphone? It can feel hard to resist the offers — switch carriers and get the latest new device for a fraction of the cost at retail. The cameras seem to get light-years better with each iteration, and who doesn’t want that, right? After all, most people practically live on their phones these days. It’s a worthy investment.
But, if you’re looking for a phone to match your sustainability ethos, or at least, match your Tesla (or any electric car for that matter), it can be a more difficult pursuit. Are smartphones really sustainable? Here’s what you need to know.
Car companies are indeed going electric in a bid to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. But what about our other favorite piece of tech — our phones? Don’t they seem significantly more muted by comparison?
While phones don’t produce the same amount of emissions cars and other vehicles do, the tech industry is a big problem for the climate — and it’s growing. An amorphous blob of a category when it comes to carbon emissions and climate change, the UN estimates the tech industry is responsible for two to three percent of all emissions. But that number is growing, particularly when it comes to the storage and energy required by all of the stuff we do from our phones.
There are more smartphones on the planet than people—best estimates put the number at close to two phones for every person. It’s indeed big business; Apple’s last quarterly earnings showed an increase of $12 billion from 2021, up to nearly $40 billion — just in iPhone sales.
A recent report from Deloitte estimated that smartphones generated the equivalent of 146 million tons of CO2 in 2022. That’s about half a percent of all global CO2 emissions produced in 2021 (about 34 gigatons).
Much of cell phone emissions — 83 percent — come from manufacturing, shipping, and first-year usage; Deloitte estimates 1.4 billion new phones will ship in 2022. New smartphones generate an average of 85 kilograms of emissions in the first year of life.
The rest of the emissions are usage-related or come from refurbishing or end-of-life processing.
But data storage and usage are two growing concerns for the climate.
“I think from a sustainability perspective, consumers need to know that much screen time on a smartphone is equivalent to digital pollution and digital waste,” Lotfi Belkhir, associate professor of engineering at McMaster University, told CNBC.
“It’s simply unhealthy in excessive amounts so I think the idea of digital pollution should start making its way towards the masses, that excessive and unnecessary use of smartphones can be just as bad as throwing away your plastic in the street.”
Part of the problem is phone usage means an increased need for infrastructure to store and process data.
“If we didn’t have the smartphones, we would not have all the data centers and therefore the indirect impact through the proliferation and rapid growth of the infrastructure is really what’s creating this explosive increase in the carbon footprint of ICT,” Belkhir said.
The smartphone market
It’s difficult to talk about smartphones without talking about planned obsolescence — the premise that something is designed and built to die before it needs to. While manufacturers have improved the durability of digital devices — computers fall into that bucket, too — their life spans are still relatively short compared to what other computers and devices can do.
Much of the problem lies in our hands—literally. We drop and ding our devices into early deaths more than we don’t. But it’s not always human error that sends us back to the dealer for a new device. Bells and whistles are hard to look past, especially when a new, better camera on a phone can feel like a necessary add-on in the age of the ‘Gram.
Higher price tags on phones have led to a booming resale market. New phones can cost $1,000 or more, and many still maintain at least half of their value a year on. It’s an incentive to swap them in, says Deloitte, and a growing number of service providers are cashing in on that, getting users to trade in and up, particularly as secondary markets are ripe for older phones at reduced prices. For the phone seller, it’s sales all around.
But are smartphones sustainable? Unlike regulations coming into effect for the automotive industry, there are no regulatory bodies pushing the phone industry toward decarbonization. Still, smartphone producers see the writing on the wall. Consumers are eagerly adopting more sustainable practices, and making ethical and responsible purchases across the board. There’s no reason they’ll want any less from their smartphones.
And as emissions efforts reduce in other categories and recycled materials become more widely available, smartphones will follow the sustainability trend. This means longer battery life aimed at reducing energy consumption, more recycled or bio-based materials, and increased efforts to support proper end-of-life recyclability for devices.
If you’re trying to do the sustainable thing and keep your smartphone until it shatters, that’s the best approach. Avoid buying a new device every year—even if your carrier offers significant trade-in offers. But since we live on our devices, it’s inevitable that yours will need to be replaced at some point likely sooner rather than later. There are some options. These are the best sustainable smartphones on the market.
Fairphone is the only certified sustainable phone on the market. It’s both a Blue Angel and B Corp-certified company.
The company has been around since 2013 and is made from responsibly sourced aluminum that’s vetted by the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative. Its back cover is made from 100 percent recycled plastic, and for every phone sold it recycles the equivalent in e-waste.
The Fairphone has all the bells and whistles you know and love on a smartphone: dual cameras, HD display, and 5G speed. It comes with a five-year warranty — about twice that of the average phone lifecycle, and the company sells repair kits for minor issues that can be remedied at home.
A recent leak of renderings show the next-generation Fairphone 5 will include some updated design elements that rival mainstream Androids.
If you’re based in Europe, you’re in luck, because it’s currently only available there. But U.S. plans are imminent.
2. Samsung Galaxy S23 Series
Samsung is doing some interesting things these days and the S23 series is proof. It’s the company’s most sustainable model, made with recycled plastic, glass, aluminum, and paper.
The tech company says it has made eco-conscious efforts throughout the entire product life cycle from sourcing, production, distribution, and product use to disposal and recycling. The Galaxy S23 Ultra has attained UL’s ECOLOGO certification and Carbon Trust’s Carbon Footprint certification.
The company is well on its way toward its 2025 goal of achieving zero waste to landfill. It recently released a line of sustainable phone cases and vegan apple leather smartwatch bands alongside designer Sami Miro.
3. iPhone 14 Pro
Apple is on its way toward a 2030 carbon-neutral goal, and with each new iPhone comes some additional sustainability metrics.
Don’t go comparing this to your zero-waste beauty products or reusable straw, though. The tech giant still has a long way to go. But here, baby steps definitely count.
The iPhone 14 Pro is made with 99 percent recycled tungsten (or wolfram) and its other rare earth elements are 98 percent recycled. And while the iPhone 13 Pro marked Apple’s first iPhone with 100 percent certified recycled gold in the main board, the 14 delivers on that pledge too, with recycled gold in the camera wires.
And Apple says it has reduced energy use in the 14 by more than half of its predecessor and its total carbon footprint for its entire life cycle is about 65 kg.
4. Motorola Edge
Time to upgrade? Maybe it’s time to go back to Motorola. Remember their phones? While the revamped Razr may not be the most sustainable option, the Edge is closer. Lenovo, Motorola’s parent company is working toward 2030 climate targets. Already, Motorola has removed mercury or cadmium from the batteries of all phones, and it’s also replaced harmful plastic PVC and BFR, a mix of synthetic chemicals.
The Edge can also hold power for two days on a single charge, reducing energy use. And it brings the bells, too: three cameras, a 144Hz display, and great storage options.
5. Teracube 2e
It can be scary to opt for a phone that doesn’t come from one of the more well-established brands, but Teracube may be the excuse you were looking for to make the switch.
Its latest smartphone is made with 25 percent recycled polycarbonate and comes in a biodegradable phone case. It also requires 50 percent less packaging than the competition, has a replaceable battery and basic repairs can be done by the user, like with Fairphone. You get all the same perks you expect: dual cameras, HD display, and a four-year warranty.
Teracube also has a charitable built-in: for every phone sold, it plants a tree with its One Tree Planted partners.
6. Google Pixel 7
Google has not been shy about its sustainability commitments as a company, but when it comes to its phones, that’s another matter. It hasn’t been the most forthcoming in years past, but as of 2020, it has been making changes across its value chain.
Google’s Pixel 7 phone feature an aluminum enclosure made with 100 percent recycled content, reducing the overall enclosure’s carbon footprint by more than 35 percent.
The tech giant has also made water commitments, stating that it plan to replenish 120 percent of the water it consumes in production by 2030.
Last year, the company announced a partnership with iFixit to provide genuine Pixel spare parts, tools, and documentation on models as far back as Pixel 2 to encourage repairs rather than replacements.
Google also says it’s future-proofing its designs and making devices aimed at lasting longer so they “grow” with the consumer over time.
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