There is a scene (spoiler alert) towards the end of The Good Place where the main characters are trying to enter the titular heavenly realm. Upon arriving at the cosmic morality scales, they find that no human has successfully entered for centuries - in large part due to the ethical burdens of modern consumerism.
The example of buying a rose for someone is used, an outwardly selfless act. However, we see that the flower may have been grown using pesticides that damage the environment, have been picked by an exploited laborer, have a large carbon footprint from travel and more. From the show the moral is simple, being ethical today is near impossible.
Supply chains have become so big and so extended it is increasingly difficult to know exactly where our products are from, and the damage that may have been caused by their creation. This is rarely more the case than with smartphones.
Billions of these devices are in circulation, containing sometimes dangerous elements, manufactured under often exploitative conditions and dumped in landfills after use. No manufacturer is exempt; the ethical and ecological quandaries which plague the industry are a group effort.
So as a consumer, what then can be done to make a difference and break the cycle? Read on to find out five ways to make your next smartphone as eco-friendly and ethically sound as possible.
1. Consider a different kind of phone
With something like a smartphone, so many varying and obscure elements go into their manufacture that it becomes almost impossible to ensure that every component is produced and sourced ethically. That hasn’t stopped some from trying.
Dutch firm Fairphone was among the first to do so, making its raison d’etre the manufacture and sale of phones that are as fair as possible, to minimize the human and environmental cost of their production. This means workers who are paid a living wage, parts bought at fair-trade prices, factories in conflict-free zones and sustainable manufacturing processes wherever possible.
It is even reflected in the design of its signature product range, the Fairphone. Each of these sold can be disassembled with only the use of a Philips screwdriver, and each of its constituent components can be replaced. These are smartphones which are made to last for years.
There is of course a price to pay for all of this, a financial one. Stricter manufacturing requirements means lower production volumes and higher costs, which means no economies of scale - simply put the average Fairphone isn’t cheap and their components tend to be out-of-date upon release. Case in point is the most recent handset, the Fairphone 3+ which features a Snapdragon 632 (a processor from 2018) and a design straight from that time, while costing a cool £439 (roughly $550 / AU$775) at the time of writing.
If this is something you can look past however, Fairphone offers something rare in the smartphone industry, accountability, transparency and an opportunity to make an individual difference.
2. Mitigate the material cost
There are no materials that make up the modern smartphone that lend themselves well to sustainability. Whether metal chipsets, plastic phone cases or otherwise, there is nothing there which degrades well.
Some have tried to mitigate this somewhat, with the recent introduction of biodegradable phone cases by the likes of Nokia and small manufacturer Teracube. These provide some peace of mind in general use and then have the added benefit of being binnable should the need arise. Teracube even goes one further, promising to plant a single tree for each phone sold, which is a pleasant extra.
So if phones don’t degrade, the issue then becomes one of recycling. E-waste and its disposal is an issue in itself, but the takeaway is simple - many recyclers will strip phones of their precious metal innards, and the resulting husks will end up in a landfill. Neither of these steps are good for the environment.
A compassionate alternative, other than simply selling your old phone for profit, is to pass the device on to a charity. The likes of Oxfam will accept and upcycle smartphones before then passing them on to people in developing countries who are in need of a device.
Old phones can also be re-used in multiple ways, some of which are fun.
3. Hang on for the long haul
Of course, the most sustainable smartphone possible is the one in your pocket now. Though every passing month might bring a new shiny device to covet from afar, most of our needs in the present can be met by even the most basic devices.
So then there is little logic in riding the upgrade carousel beyond the fleeting fun it offers. With upgrades year on year between smartphones becoming increasingly incremental in nature, and rising annual prices, holding on to your handset for the long-term is fast becoming the most sensible choice.
This is especially true as manufacturers such as Samsung and Nokia are increasingly committing to software updates for years to come, both monthly and annual.
While it may not be the most exciting option, hanging on a bit longer is to the benefit of the environment, and there are plenty of ways to make your old phone seem new.
4. Read beyond the lines
When it comes to sustainable practices, a little knowledge can go a long way. The likes of Samsung will go a long way to paint a very positive image of their handsets, but these will rarely mention anything to do with the environment.
With the industry primarily focused on pushing new handsets and driving profits, it is up to the consumer to put in the legwork and find out a little more about the purchases they make.
There are resources out there which can help, with the likes of Greenpeace and Mossy Earth providing interesting and useful resources to help make the most informed decision. Some manufacturers have also begun to cotton on to the positive effect this may have on their image, and to this point both Nokia and Apple are offering more insight into the ecological impact of their work.
Having the right information to hand is half the battle, and the more information you have the better choice you will be able to make.
5. Look for a return on investment
Smartphones are an odd outlier in the market - although they can and often do cost in excess of $1,000 / £1,000 it is still a common assumption of manufacturers and markets that the public will hope to upgrade to something new at least every two years.
This ‘fast fashion’ approach is in direct contrast to the likes of an iPad, a laptop or a car, which are bought as an investment. Despite the vital role they play in our lives, we still like to think of phones as ultimately disposable.
To combat this, the challenge then becomes buying a phone as an investment, something which will be kept for years. Finding a device with extended software support is then the first challenge, followed by deciding what the most important thing for you is, whether that is the camera, display, battery life or otherwise.
With the right mindset, a lot of money can be saved and the environment will only benefit as a result.
You might want to check out our review for Fairphone 3 Plus, one of the most eco-friendly phones.