How Smartphone Makers Can Get Smarter About Sustainability

Published on: 17 July 2022
by Zara Ali
Smartphones and Sustainability

Approximately two-thirds of the world's population already have access to a smartphone, and this figure is expected to continue rising. How intelligent are our phones, though, when it comes to the issue of climate change? What is the carbon footprint, and how can we find an ethically and environmentally responsible smartphone?

Environmental Impact of Smartphones

The supply chain for mobile phones is largely to blame for their shortcomings. Due to the large volume of rare earth minerals required for their components, these products are among the most resource-exhausting on the earth. The majority of oil is used to power the extraction of these materials, which results in considerable carbon emissions. It's not uncommon to hear about the societal implications of this procedure. 

Also, due to China's continued use of coal as its primary energy source, and its leading position in the manufacture of mobile phones, greenhouse gas emissions are generated throughout the manufacturing process, exacting a growing negative impact on the environment, in line with the ever-increasing demand. 

It's hard to keep up with the latest and greatest gadgets since everybody wants the newest, thinnest, fastest, and most powerful model. Although perfectly functional smartphones are swapped and tossed away, mobile phone manufacturers do not build devices that are long-lasting or repairable. Furthermore, as e-waste is not adequately reused and recycled, it keeps rising with smartphone demand.

Companies like Apple have been fined 25 million Euros for deliberately slowing down their older iPhones so that consumers are tempted to buy the latest model. While most of the mainstream smartphone makers have been accused of not being eco-friendly, there are new players like Fairphone. They are manufacturing phones both from recycled materials while being designed to last longer in the first place.

More than 40 to 50 million metric tonnes of electronic garbage are generated yearly, with just 16 percent of that material being recycled through formal recycling channels. For the vast majority of recycling, the dangerous compounds and metals within smartphones pollute the 'informal' environment, heavily impacting the health and wellbeing of the many informal employees on-site.

Carbon Footprint of Smartphones

The energy-exhausting manufacturing and mining processes account for about 80% of a smartphone's carbon footprint. It may not seem like much, but it adds up quickly when you consider that almost 1.5 billion smartphones are sold worldwide. A 2019 research by the European Environmental Bureau estimated the EU's climate effect of mobile phones at 14.2 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Can Smartphones Ever Be Eco-friendly: What Should Manufacturers Do?

Most of a smartphone's carbon footprint is created within the first year of usage, during the raw material extraction and shipment. Manufacturing accounts for 95% of the carbon emissions during this time. As a result, shifting the emission needle up and down the supply chain is possible if smartphone makers invest gradually in the following stages:

Preference for recycled materials

Reusing resources reduces the need for mining, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Components, batteries, and casings could all be made from reclaimed materials, including tin, cobalt, and aluminium. Rare-earth elements, formerly regarded as uneconomical, can now be reused thanks to new technology. 

Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings

The cumulative emissions of smartphones can be reduced if manufacturers pay attention to energy use in their supply chains, such as in manufacturing integrated circuits for cell phones. A semiconductor fabrication facility's operational expenditures can account for as much as 30 percent of its total costs for maintaining temperatures and humidity. Adequate analysis of facilities to develop an understanding of how they can be retrofitted to reduce heat and energy losses can, therefore, be hugely impactful in lowering costs. 

Promoting alternative energy sources

This applies to both in-house operations and third-party manufacturing partners. Smartphone makers need to shift to renewable energy resources, and it will also include convincing their third-party supply chains to shift to energy sources like wind, hydro, and solar.

Smartphone Companies Need To Create A 'Sustainability Ripple' Effect

Decarbonisation goals typically necessitate a shift in how businesses operate to meet them. However, the payback might be far more than just the smartphone sector. It's not only about reducing smartphone emissions, but it may also set a precedent for other devices, like laptops or tablets, where manufacturers can apply the lessons learned with smartphones.

This becomes even more critical in light of smartphones' predicted domination in the device industry in 2022, when the smartphone market is anticipated to outnumber PCs and laptops by more than three to one, and tablets by more than seven to one. It's only a matter of time until the rest of the industry follows suit.