Smartphones for good or for bad? You decide

Source: Coolproducts don’t cost the Earth – Report. EEB 2019

If all smartphones in the EU would extend their normal 3-year lifespan by just one year, it would have the same effect as taking 1 000 000 cars off the roads.

Source: European Environmental Bureau 2019

Inspired by the insanity of our culture of black Fridays together with a recent Ezra Klein podcast with Michael Powers (worth a listen by the way), this piece was born out of necessity. Necessity to rethink our role and habits as consumers.

As the pandemic has made the world slow down and introspect, we have started to become aware of just how dependent we are on nature. We are slowly acknowledging, with great discomfort, how the changing climate conditions are increasingly affecting our lives regardless of where we are located in the world. The tendency of our modern culture to see nature as a mere resource has brought us in the middle of an environmental crisis. This unpredictability is causing increasing uncertainty, which can be a source of both economic and emotional turmoil.

With more and more information available on what our endless consuming mania is doing to the planet, many of us have started to take a critical look at what concrete steps we could take to make a difference. Our own behaviour is always a good place to start. Let’s have our most precious device, a smartphone, as an example.

smartphone in a drawer

The inconvenient truth about smartphones

There are a lot of articles on the adverse effects of smartphone manufacturing on people and the planet, but we’re still very much victims of our desire to always have the newest features at hand. We end up buying a new phone every three years, when the environmentally-friendly lifespan would be something between 25-232(!) years (of course, for more reasons than one, it would be beyond utopistic to market a smartphone that would last several generations). More or less mindlessly, we might be hoarding several still somewhat functioning devices in our drawers as a result. What exactly makes smartphone manufacturing so unsustainable?

Most harm is done before the smartphone even reaches our hands, that is during the mining, refining, constructing, and transporting phases. The issues we’re dealing with have to do with conflict minerals and the pollution and the environmental harm caused by the different phases in the supply chain. 

The mining phase is especially problematic. For example, mining of minerals that are used to make our batteries consume incredible amounts of electricity and water – two necessities we often take for granted, and a situation where both are a scarcity is hard to imagine. In addition to short term inconveniences, scarcity of water can have long standing effects. It can even lead to famine if there is none left for people to use for farming. Crops won’t survive. It can be difficult for us to empathise with what it means to really not have food on the table as our own problems tend to be of quite different nature. Our grandparents might be able to relate better.

old man looking at a phone looking anxious

Child labour, inhumane working conditions, and financing destructive conflicts have also been associated with mining the minerals for our batteries – issues we find hard to relate to in our institutional context. Without belittling, our own work-related grievances are more related battling with work-life balance. 

In addition to social issues, the supply chain of smartphones is a source of environmental problems as well, as the two are so deeply interrelated. CO2 emissions, Amazon deforestation, mine waste spills, and an overall ecosystem destruction all sound scary but possibly too distant from our everyday lives. But being an ecosystem, a malfunction of one part will eventually affect the entire system, including the part in which we live in. Think of how holistically a tiny piece of virus has changed our lives.

Deforestation, pollution, logistics
horrible effects of smartphone manufacturing

All this information is hardly new to most of us. It points to an urgent need of extending the lifespan of smartphones and eventually recycling the components. Unfortunately, with little user-friendly systems in place, a wiser use of our devices still requires a lot of motivation. When buying a new phone, it’s often easier to just leave the old one as a spare device in the drawer, where it eventually becomes obsolete.

More empathy into environmental education

The mere dissemination of information is clearly not enough to motivate a change in behaviour. Indeed, a lot of the content aimed at changing our behaviour tends to be either too prescriptive, scattered, abstract or unrelatable. We don’t want to be told what to do unless we understand why. Additionally, in our era of information overload it is hard to compete with all the other (possibly less discomfort-inducing) content out there. 

Behavioural change on a societal level is hard. Especially when a lot of discussion around these issues is focused on trying to make people feel guilty. As we react differently to that kind of incentivising, it is more likely to cause polarisation than cooperation for the common good.

Often, insisting on what we should do - telling people that what they’re doing right now is wrong or not enough, that they need to make sacrifices or change - that can lead to tremendous political backlash. It can lead to a shrinking of what we will do.

Ezra Klein, The Ezra Klein Show

There is thus a desperate need for a different approach to educating people in order to wisen-up our consumer behaviour. We need self-reflection and more value-conscious decisions.

Upcycling for digital inclusion

The aim of this post is not to generate feelings of guilt, but empathy. Empathy is a much more sustainable source of motivation to change behaviour.

One incentive for not letting your phone spend the rest of its life alone in the drawer could be the idea of making someone’s life better by upcycling the phone. Upcycling can make a meaningful difference to someone else’ life (in addition to slowing down the destruction of our ecosystem – a not-so-easily fathomable idea).

This is what Smartphones4good can help you with. You can order a phone collection box from us for your office or just send your old phone(s) to us. After a GDPR compliant complete data removal, we will lease the phone(s) to female entrepreneurs in Rwanda, Zimbabwe or Cameroon. Smartphone ownership rate among women in Africa is still lower than among men, so you will also be contributing to gender equality.

Cameroonian women farmers
Pssst! Greetings from our Cameroonian friends! We have partnered with Afrifarms, a farming cooperative in Limbe, where smartphone ownership rate is still low.