Is a Fairphone Greener Than a Secondhand Smartphone?

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Photo by  Maksym Yemelyanov

With the ever-growing problem of cumulative damage to the global environment, we’re all searching for ways to be more sustainable in our day to day lives. As a result, the advent of sustainable products has been on the rise, and the Fairphone, marketed as a sustainable smartphone, has been one of the most buzz-worthy yet.

But is a Fairphone greener than a secondhand smartphone? Simply put, the answer is no, it’s not greener. Despite the company’s sustainable sourcing and manufacturing, buying a new Fairphone still has a larger carbon footprint than buying a secondhand smartphone.

However, even though a Fairphone is more immediately “green” when compared to buying secondhand, there are still arguments to be made that investing in a Fairphone helps progress the overall industry towards a more sustainable future.

To understand the complexity of this issue fully, we need to examine the environmental impact of producing new smartphones compared to buying a secondhand device. Then, you can better understand exactly where Fairphone fits into the smartphone landscape and decide if you want to take a more long-view oriented approach to your personal sustainability.

The Environmental Impact of a New Smartphone

Overall, modern technological devices have had a massively damaging impact on the environment, and smartphones aren’t any different.

According to an accountability project, The World Counts, publicly available data indicates that in the first 6 months of 2020, over 21 million tons of electronic waste was discarded, and the estimated 6 billion smartphones in circulation today are among the devices most likely to add to that count.

Unlike other tech, smartphones are particularly susceptible to quick turnover, as smartphone owners move on to the next model. And although tech industry giants like Apple and Samsung have been concerned over consumers holding on to their smartphones for longer, the smartphone lifecycle hasn’t increased by much.

From 2016 to 2018, the average length of time a smartphone was used before an upgrade went from 22.7 months to 24.7 months. While that increase in time, on the scale of millions of consumers, might be hurting tech companies’ annual profits, it doesn’t do much for the environment, which is still feeling the tool of millions of discarded devices each year.

To understand the extent of this problem, it’s important to examine where those old smartphones end up and how they’re processed by waste management.

The Waste that Smartphones Produce

To produce the processors, batteries, displays, and other electrical components of a standard smartphone, tech manufacturers have to source a variety of metals, including:

  • Iron
  • Aluminum
  • Copper
  • Chromium
  • Platinum
  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Lithium

Those listed are just among the most common, but various sources have cited 62 as the number of metals used in the average smartphone. And upon learning that those metals generally make up about 40%, you might be thinking that those figures don’t sound too bad. After all, these metals can be found naturally in the earth itself, so what’s the harm?

How these metals are procured, directly from the earth, is exactly the problem. The mining processes involved in sourcing these metals produce a significant amount of waste often requires the destruction of natural habitats, such as the deforestation of the Amazon to mine gold. This just adds to the negative impact of the oil used to produce the plastics that make up another 40% of smartphone components.

And on top of the carbon footprint of these metal and plastic components, they are highly likely to go to waste and end up in a landfill once the original owner is done with their smartphone.

Although in recent years, a number of tech recycling programs have stepped up to compact this problem, “only 20% of e-waste is documented to have been collected and recycled.” Consequently, this waste contributes about 70% of hazardous materials in landfills in the United States despite only representing between 2% and 3% of overall waste.

The Environmental Impact of Using Secondhand Tech

As much as 85% of the carbon emissions connected to a new smartphone originate from the production process because “they are made up of precious metals that are mined at a high cost.”

The same is true for various tech devices, including laptops, tablets, smartwatches, and more. When environmental activists promote the idea of secondhand consumption of these products, the reasoning behind it is based on two main ideas:

  1. By using a secondhand device, you’re making sure that the bulk of the environmental damage that has already occurred doesn’t go to waste.
  2. And, by using a secondhand device instead of buying new, you’re reducing the demand for new devices and potentially preventing unnecessary production and emissions that would otherwise occur.

And, if you’re wary about trusting the quality of used phones, professionally refurbished phones have become an affordable and environmentally friendly way to get a high-quality phone with reliable performance.

As the price of the average smartphone has continued to climb, an increasing number of companies have gotten into the business of refurbishing phones, and the capabilities to restore old phones to like-new condition has only improved as a result, and they often come with included warranties that are more extensive than those from the original manufacturer.

Of course, not everyone committed to practicing personal sustainability agrees with this approach. Instead, some people believe that the better way forward is to move away from the planned obsolescence and incentivized overconsumption inherent to smartphone manufacturing, and Dutch company Fairphone offers such a solution.

What Makes Fairphone a “Green” Smartphone?

With the tagline “the phone that cares for people and planet,” Fairphone makes a big claim that it is ready to back up with transparency about its design and features and the intentions behind them. The Fairphone is a “modular” smartphone, which means that consumers can easily take apart and repair the device themselves.

In fact, the company boasts a “10 out of 10 iFixit score” on repairability on the site listing for its latest release, the Fairphone 3. The modular design is intended to let users repair the “parts that are more prone to failures and accidents,” and comes with a full price list for any replacement parts you may need to purchase from the company.

That’s quite a departure when compared to Apple, which has a certain infamy for strong-arming customers into purchasing new phones with a battery slow-down that potentially impacted over 11 million customers in 2018 as well as disincentivizing external repairs through specific design choices, lawsuits of aftermarket repair shops, and policy to refuse to repair iPhones that have seen third-party repairs.

While, on average, Androids have long been championed by loyalists for being much easier to repair than iPhones, other smartphone companies have started to follow Apple’s lead, which has led to organizations and tech reviewers to start ranking smartphones on repairability. In light of this, the Fairphone’s innovative design stands out in the industry.

Additionally, the Fairphone 3 is made with both sustainable materials, including recycled tungsten and plastic, as well as fair-trade mined gold that avoids sourcing the metal from unethically run mines.

Is the Fairphone Functional for Your Life?

While previous editions of the Fairphone came with many drawbacks for smartphone owners used to mainstream models, the Fairphone 3 has a ton of functionality that the company makes easy to understand. This model, which runs on Android 9, has gotten generally positive reviews on the look, ease of use, and quality of its technical components and features.

The Fairphone 3, which is designed to last through 5 years’ use, costs £420 (or roughly 530 USD as of June 2020) and is only available for delivery to certain European countries, although there are workarounds to get your hands on the phone if you live elsewhere.

The phone comes with 64GB of storage, something that can be easily upgraded based on the Fairphone design. The device also includes other now-standard smartphone features like a fingerprint sensor, a battery that can last “all day,” and a 12-megapixel camera.

Inside the plastic-free packaging, the Fairphone comes with a mini screwdriver for repairs and a quick start guide. And, proving that Fairphone is serious about reducing waste: “There’s no charger, cable or earphones, so you can use the ones you have, and help cut down on e-waste.”

Criticisms of the Sustainability of the Fairphone

Fairphone says it themselves: “The most sustainable phone is the one you already own.” If sustainability is a big factor in your decision to purchase your next smartphone, buying secondhand is arguably much more in-line with the goal of reducing your carbon footprint

Compared to buying a new phone, the Fairphone is more than likely to be a much more sustainable choice considering its recycled components and modular design. But, at the end of the day, a Fairphone still needs to go through a manufacturing process that has environmentally harmful carbon emissions attached.

Buying secondhand would avoid adding those emissions to your lifetime carbon footprint and potentially save an already used phone from ending up in a landfill. Based on that, deciding which option, secondhand smartphone or Fairphone, is the “most” sustainable might seem straightforward. But of course, evaluating the sustainability of a practice isn’t so simple.

Buying a Fairphone: The Long-Term Implications

If you’re looking at the environmental impact of your smartphone purchase from a short-term, micro lense, it’s easy to argue how and why a secondhand smartphone is the better option. However, in the long-term, there’s an argument to be made that buying a new Fairphone is the more sustainable choice.

Stating that a secondhand smartphone is a sustainable choice approaches the problem of smartphone waste from the perspective of one person’s carbon footprint. If that’s the option you choose, you’re still making an environmentally friendly choice because you’re increasing the lifecycle of a used device.

On the other hand, buying a Fairphone, although it would increase your individual carbon footprint, might be your way of helping the overall industry decrease its future emissions. By supporting a brand like Fairphone, you would be increasing demand for these kinds of products, increasing the company’s profitability and longevity, and making it more likely for the industry to change.

The only way that the smartphone industry will change is if big companies like Apple, LG, Samsung, and Huawei are incentivized by consumer demand and legislation to start making modular phones made with recyclable and recycled materials. Voting with your wallet is one of the best ways to get that message across.

In the long run, the more people show their interest in repairable tech products like the Fairphone, both monetarily and civically, the more likely it will be that bodies like the European Union will enact legislation that addresses this issue. At the same time, the higher the demand, the more companies that will open to supply sustainable smartphones.

Deciding: Fairphone or a Secondhand Smartphone?

When deciding between purchasing the Fairphone or a secondhand smartphone, keep in mind there’s no 100% right or wrong answer. When it comes to sustainability, the important thing is that as many people as possible are doing something to reduce their carbon footprint.

At the end of the day, both options will reduce the carbon emissions that your purchases add to the world as a consumer of the smartphone industry. Which decision you make depends on whether you want to take a short or long-term approach to your personal environmentalism.

Identifying Your Priorities in Your Smartphone Search

If you’re still struggling to decide between these two valid options, you can narrow in on your choice by doing some more research into your options. In terms of the goal to be as green as possible, the worst outcome, in this case, would be to retire your phone early because you’re not satisfied with its functionality.

Make sure that whichever phone you get actually works for your life so that you’re less likely to replace it quickly. Consider all the things you need in a phone, especially if you use your smartphone for your professional work or to manage a business you own. Then, compare that list with the specifications of the Fairphone 3.

If the Fairphone doesn’t meet your needs, don’t purchase it for the sake of claiming that you’re “green,” as its lack of use for you may push you to purchase another phone, undermining the benefits of buying a Fairphone in the first place. Buying a secondhand smartphone isn’t any less commendable or noble, then buying a new, sustainable phone, especially since it reduces the toxic waste that smartphones contribute each year.

Other Ways to Go Green When Buying Tech

No matter what option you decide to go with, Fairphone or secondhand, first and foremost: make sure to recycle your old cell phone if you have one! Look into your municipal waste department and see if they have an official e-waste recycling program or if the original manufacturer of your device does (something many U.S. state governments have started to mandate).

Otherwise, there are numerous organizations certified to have reputable e-waste recycling programs that you can send your device to for free. These organizations aim to repurpose as many parts of devices like smartphones, including by recovering reusable metals, collecting plastic parts for melting and re-molding into new components, and refurbishing and reusing salvageable electronic components.

Beyond making sure to recycle your old devices, you can help the environment by using any device you do have for as long as possible. It may sound overly simple, but just maintaining your devices in good condition by using a case, charging it to prolong the battery’s life, and replacing or repairing parts rather than buying a whole new device will reduce your environmental impact in the long run.

Quantifying the Impact of Your Smartphone Choices

While your purchase a single, additional device in your lifetime won’t make or break worldwide sustainability efforts, just getting into the habit can significantly reduce your lifetime carbon footprint. For example, if you increased the lifecycle of your smartphone usage from 2 years to 3 years, over the course of 30 years of smartphone ownership, you’d use and discard five fewer phones.

At the same time, you’d be modeling more sustainable behavior for your social circle. Considering how disposable smartphones are treated when newer models debut, the value of normalizing sustainable tech ownership can’t be discounted.

By influencing a handful of your friends and family to do the same, your behavior could easily remove more devices from the waste stream that would accumulate through your lifetime use, especially if you throw secondhand phones or sustainable phones like the Fairphone into the mix.

As manufacturers gear up to meet the coming demand for 5G-compatible phones in the near future and worldwide smartphone penetration approaches 90%, the need for sustainable smartphone ownership will only grow. Already, the manufacturing of these devices is threatening the global supply of several rare earth metals, and soon recycling and/or buying longer-lasting, repairable smartphones may be the only way to meet demand.

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