A growing number of smartphone manufacturers are making sustainable and eco 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.
If you watched the Super Bowl last Sunday, then surely you saw at least one of the myriad of commercials for EVs (hopefully it was the Zeus commercial for BMW and not the Dr. Evil spot for GM). 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 will generate 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 the 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.
If you’re based in Europe, you’re in luck, because it’s currently only available there. But U.S. plans are imminent.
2. iPhone 13 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 baby steps count.
The new iPhone 13 Pro is made with 99 percent recycled tungsten (or wolfram) and its other rare earth elements are 98 percent recycled. The 13 Pro marks Apple’s first iPhone with 100 percent certified recycled gold in the main board. And Apple says it has reduced energy use in the 13 by more than half of its predecessor and its total carbon footprint is about 11 percent less than the iPhone 12 Pro.
3. 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. 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.
4. Samsung Galaxy S22 Series
Samsung is doing some interesting things these days and the S22 series is proof. It’s the company’s most sustainable model, made with 20 percent reclaimed fishing nets—the biggest source of ocean plastic pollution. There are recycled post-consumer materials in the speaker, as well as volume and power keys. Its packaging is sustainable too, made of 100 percent recycled paper and recycled plastic.
The company is well on its way toward its 2025 goal of achieving zero waste to landfill, and last year it released a line of vegan apple leather smartwatch bands alongside designer Sami Miro.
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 6 + beyond
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 greening the value chain. The Google Pixel 6 and 6 Pro contains at least 45 percent post-consumer recycled plastic and the case is made with 70 percent recycled plastic. It’s also using recycled aluminum in the housing of the Pixel 6 and the Pro version uses 100 percent recycled content.
Beginning in 2022, the tech giant says all of its products will include recyclable materials.
Google also says it’s future-proofing its designs and making devices aimed at lasting longer so they “grow” with the consumer over time.