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In 2017, a friend of mine was still using a non-smartphone.
"It does everything I need it to. I can call and text. Why change?"
He didn't want to discard a phone that was working perfectly well just to have access to new features which he could access on his computer anyway.
Of course, some things were tricky, like when we wanted to meet as a group. Each update needed to be sent to him individually as well and not just in a group chat in the app. He also didn't have the public transport app and couldn't check the news if he was in a waiting room, for example.
Eventually, he started looking for a phone that made sense to him. He came across one that was modular, easy to open, and repair. The company, Fairphone, also intended to update the OS for as long as possible. To make it even better, they don’t only care about the planet but also about human rights and worker well-being.
However, the phone had sold out, as it was pretty unique at the time. It wasn't clear exactly when the new version would be released (it turned out to be 2019), so he could be waiting for a long time.
Looking for something that was still sustainable, he ended up buying a used phone. It was a mainstream brand, but it had been refurbished.
These concepts of repairing, refurbishing, and longevity are central to the circular economy. The main goal is to not generate waste, as stated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:
In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place.
Having a phone that lasts longer ends up being potentially cheaper. Less costly for the planet - and its inhabitants - but also for the phone owner. For example, Fairphone 2 received an update to Android 10 in 2022, having been released at the end of 2015.
Besides Fairphone, another initiative that strives to make the phone as fixable as possible is Shiftphone. They have a deposit on their devices, so after the end of its life, the user will surely send it back to them to get the refund back, and the company will keep the phone's parts/materials in use.
Shiftphone says they want to do as much good as they can while doing as little damage as possible. Reading their blog and watching their videos, it indeed looks like they keep sustainability and social justice in mind and keep looking for new ways to put that into action!
Both these phones are currently only available in Europe, but luckily there are other phones that score high on repairability. Check out iFixit's repairability score page to find out your current phone’s score and decide what your next one could be!
Looking for a sustainable phone involves paying attention to how circular and ethical the company behind the phone is.
Here are a few characteristics to keep in mind:
I mentioned reusing, refurbishing, and fixing phones. To have an overview of how a product can continue in use, here's the diagram of the technical loop that shows how a circular economy handles products that are used.
From the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Notice that the shorter loops consume less energy and resources. That’s why those are the ones we should try first: maintaining or prolonging the use of the device before refurbishing, for example. This means recycling is the very last option!
By the way, if you are curious, the left side of the image above is greyed out and shows the biological cycle - for products that are consumed, like food.
These considerations can be applied to other things besides smartphones!
It might be a challenge to find out how ethical a company is along its supply chain and what will happen at the end-of-life of the products we buy.
However, caring about these topics will potentially reduce the waste we create, improve working conditions in general, and have us thinking more creatively - and the manufacturing companies too.