Last updated: December 2013
Guide to greener mobile phone companies
Global electronics companies must do more to end the use of climate-changing dirty energy in their manufacturing and supply chains, according to a report by Greenpeace.
Greenpeace International’s 18th version of the Guide to Greener Electronics was released in November 2012. It ranked 16 electronics companies, including 7 mobile phone makers, based on their commitment and progress in three environmental areas: Energy and Climate, Greener Products and Sustainable Operations.
The Guide’s criteria reflect Greenpeace’s demands of electronics companies to:
- reduce emissions of greenhouse gases;
- clean up their products by eliminating hazardous substances;
- take-back and recycle their products responsibly once they become obsolete, and;
- stop the use of unsustainable materials in their products and packaging.
The bulk of the carbon footprint associated with many electronic devices is buried in the manufacturing chain, where the electronic devices are assembled. More carbon is used in the manufacture of smartphones than consumers ever use after buying them.
“Companies should work with their suppliers to implement more efficient manufacturing processes and to power the supply chain with renewable energy, not fossil fuels, just as they have successfully done to reduce the toxic materials in electronics,” said Greenpeace International IT analyst Casey Harrell.
Nokia moved up from 4th place overall to 3rd. Taiwanese computer maker Acer was the most improved company in the guide, moving up nine places to No. 4. Apple dropped slightly from No. 5 in 2011’s edition to No. 6. Sony, Samsung and LG all moved up whilst BlackBerry did not improve from its 16th ranking, the bottom of the group.
We have used Greenpeace’s data to give the companies above a rating in our Climate Change, Pollution & Toxics and Habitats & Resources categories on our score tables.
The Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, launched in 2006, has prompted improvements within the electronics industry, including the phase-out of hazardous substances from products.
Carbon footprint of a mobile phone
Manufacturing an ordinary mobile phone is estimated to cause 16 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions, nearly the same as 1 kg of beef. Add the power it consumes over two years (average phone use length) and that figure rises to 22 kg. But the footprint of the energy used to transmit your calls across the network is about three times all this put together taking us to 94 kg CO2 equivalent over the life of the phone.1
Apple publishes environmental impact reports for all its smartphones which cover: greenhouse gas emissions during production, transport, use and recycling; energy efficiency; amount of materials used; and use of restricted substances. The carbon footprint for the manufacture and use of their smartphones (not including the transmission of calls) is 55 kg CO2e for the iPhone 4s, 60 kg for the 5C and 70 kg for the 5s.
To reduce the impact of your mobile phone, texting is a much lower carbon option than calling. But for calls, landlines take only a third of the power to transmit a call than it does when both callers are on a mobile.
Greener products rating
As part of their ‘Guide to Greener Electronics’ (see above), Greenpeace have ranked seven of the mobile phone companies in this report on four product criteria: energy efficiency; avoidance of hazardous substances; use of recycled plastics; extending life cycles (warranties and spare parts).
Despite its high overall ranking, Apple’s iPhones still contain built-in batteries. They only last for around 400 charges and then you are meant to pay Apple about £55 to replace the battery which takes about a week. When replacing it they erase all your data and you may even get a different phone back. But there are many guides on the internet to how to do it yourself, although Apple definitely don’t make it easy – you may need to buy a special screwdriver and disconnect various cables.
Several mobile network operators – Vodafone, O2 and Orange – have developed eco-ratings for models of mobile phones. They are all based on questionnaires sent to the manufacturers.
O2 was the first network to develop an eco-rating in the UK in 2010 with independent sustainability group Forum for the Future. It’s the only eco-rating currently available in the UK.
It currently gives 73 handsets a score out of five according to their environmental impact, functionality (how they help people lead more sustainable lives) and the ethical performance of the manufacturer.
We are disappointed that the corporate impact only accounts for 11% of the rating but the functionality accounts for 25% which means that smartphones don’t necessarily get rated worse than simpler devices. The justification is that they negate the need for separate devices such as a camera, MP3 player and satnav, saving the energy that would be required to make them.
This functionality weighting means that the top 15 phones listed below are all smartphones except for the two Alcatel phones.
Most of the brands on our score table have been rated by O2 except for Fairphone, Amplicomms, Acer, Motorola and, the most notable exception, Apple. Apple declined to take part in the rating scheme, highlighting its own product environmental reporting online.
On the O2 shop website, not many phones carry the rating and it isn’t very prominent – you have to click through on each brand to see if it has been rated. You can’t search the phones to just show those with an eco-rating and they are not separately listed. It is apparently displayed on shelf tags in O2 shops.
See the full list of 73 phones rated from June 2012 to September 2013.
More details of how the phones are rated
Vodafone’s eco-rating is available in Australia, Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania and Spain, and will be rolled out to a number of other European markets during 2013. Like O2’s, it covers manufacturing impacts plus corporate social responsibility issues. But it has independent third party verification of the manufacturers’ responses. Fairphone used the rating in the development of their phone.
More details >
Orange’s rating was produced in partnership with WWF and covers greenhouse gases emitted at key stages of product life cycle, use of non-renewable materials and eco-friendly design. It has been deployed in France, Spain, Romania and Armenia.
5 steps to smarter phones
Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption at Nottingham Trent University, looks at just some of the ways phone manufacturers could reduce the impact of their products on the environment – from design innovation and technological advances to improved production processes.
Energy-saving batteries – the organic radical battery (ORB) uses no heavy metals that can be harmful to humans, and charges in just 30 seconds.
Change contract length – a UK mobile phone’s typical lifetime is just 18 months. Instead of offering contracts that encourage us to keep upgrading when our phones are still usable, the industry could offer customers savings if we take on longer contracts, or explore options like fixing or leasing, helping phones live longer. One Swiss study concluded that extending service life from one to four years would decrease environmental impacts by about 40%.
Design for disassembly and repair – many phones are deliberately glued shut or have special screws that stop users from opening them. Designing phones so they are easier to take apart, to repair or replace parts would make a big difference. And it would make it more cost-effective to extract and reuse components and metals. The value of precious metals in 85 million discarded phones exceeds £150 million. (See Phonebloks below.)
Choose greener materials – such as polylactic acid plastic (PLA), which is made entirely from corn starch or glucose and is renewable and biodegradable; recycled plastic, and natural materials like bamboo. Or use fewer materials.
Cut down on packaging and accessories – are all those manuals, chargers and packaging materials really needed? 70% of buyers already have compatible chargers for the 30 million new phones sold annually. HTC, Nokia and Sony now sell some models with just USB leads instead of unnecessary chargers, as part of O2’s Chargers out of the Box campaign.
Building a better mobile
Phonebloks is an idea that is just starting to get off the ground and is due to go public on 29th October 2013. The concept is that a mobile phone should be built from easily changeable ‘bloks’ to make it upgradable and repairable. If one part goes wrong, you don’t need to buy a new phone, you just change the ‘blok’ that has the problem.
Phonebloks is the brainchild of Dave Hakkens. He says of the project “The market for electronic devices is growing rapidly, but it feels like we are building disposable stuff. Every time we make something new we completely throw away the old one. Imagine all the good displays, bluetooths and speakers we have thrown away. I love the connected world that we live in and it’s time to set up a universal modular platform that companies work on together.”
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