Is it possible to make a sustainable smartphone?

Every year on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, retailers whip out deals tempting us to buy shiny new devices, including smartphones. 

Maybe you were already thinking about a new purchase, since your apps have slowed down and your battery life has shrunk. Or maybe you dropped your phone and have discovered that finding a place to fix it isn’t easy, or that the repair will cost more than buying a new one. (We’ve previously discussed why this is.)

These are some of the reasons many people suspect or accuse technology companies of “planned obsolescence,” the practice of designing and making products that quickly become obsolete, requiring you to replace them. Whether or not it’s by design, it’s clear that replacing them frequently has an environmental downside.

2018 study by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton found that 85 per cent of the emissions impact from a smartphone comes from production rather than use. Emissions aren’t the only problem — smartphones contain metals and minerals that are mined at high environmental and human cost.

But is it possible to design a smartphone that lasts?

Fairphone, a social enterprise in the Netherlands, has been working since 2013 on a sustainable phone. Its modular Android model, which is currently only available in Europe, is designed to be easy to repair. Fairphone sells spare parts and the phone comes with a little screwdriver.

“You can apply the spare parts and replace them yourself,” said Ioiana Pires Luncheon, the company’s PR and communications manager. “We’re encouraging people to keep their phones as long as possible.”

The company launched a camera module in 2017 that allowed users to upgrade their old phones without buying a new one by installing the new camera themselves. It has even taken on the challenge of making its own modifications to new Android versions so they’ll run on older processing chips that aren’t supported by the manufacturer, allowing for software upgrades that would otherwise be impossible.

Luncheon admits the process has not been easy. “Making phones that are all about longevity is a challenge in an industry where products really aren’t made to last very long.”

The company was forced to stop supporting its first phone, the Fairphone 1 (released in 2013), after just 3.5 years because it had licensed a design from a Chinese manufacturer that had stopped making phones and it could no longer get parts. With subsequent versions of the phone, Fairphone realized it needed more control over the design, partly to have more flexibility in sourcing spare parts, the company said in its 2017 annual report. 

While there is a lot of talk about planned obsolescence, Luncheon doesn’t think that the big manufacturers are quite so strategic about it.

“It’s really just how the free market operates,” she said. “And it’s not one person. It’s a complex system.” She said that in order to make products last longer, you have to have co-ordination all along the supply chain, including manufacturers of hardware from chips to screens, as well as developers of software such as operating systems. “It’s crucial to have them all on board to make a product last longer.”

She thinks legislation, such as laws forcing standardization of accessories, and consumer awareness could both help with that.

“There is a market there [for longer-lasting devices] and we really want to expand it and get more people on board,” she said. In the meantime, she encourages consumers to keep their phones, no matter what brand or model, as long as possible.

“We always say that the most sustainable phone is the one that you already have.”

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