TCO and smartphones
TCO Certified is a global sustainability certification for IT products.
In the previous mobile phone guide we gave a positive sustainability mark to any phones that were TCO certified. At the time, this was only the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. This time when Ethical Consumer searched the TCO Certified online database it found that no mobile phones currently on the market were certified.
This came as a surprise, especially as the same database listed 182 TCO certified notebooks, 133 desktops and 7 tablets. Many of the materials and processes used to make computers and phones are very similar and so should be easily certifiable in many cases.
We contacted TCO Certified asking why no smartphones were currently accredited. TCO stated:
One reason for the lack of commitment from the smartphone industry could be that the majority of smartphones are purchased by individuals rather than through procurement in large quantities by professional buyers... This means that the pressure on the industry is less powerful and coordinated for this product group.
In the market for mobile phones, the network service provider acts as an intermediary between the end customer and the mobile phone brand.
They are the most important customers for mobile phone brands, purchasing large numbers of phones in order to sell them on to you as a customer, usually as part of a network/handset bundle. The presence of an intermediary actor means that there is less opportunity for end-users to put direct pressure on mobile phone brands to improve sustainability, unlike in other electronics goods markets such as desktops and notebooks.
A large organisation, such as a city council or a big business, that bulk buys desktops and notebooks for their staff will likely also provide their workforce with mobile phones. Their demands, as large purchasers of mobile phones, would carry some weight so, in theory, they could put pressure on network service providers to supply phones that meet sustainability certifications.
So why is this not the case? this is what TCO told us:
“We have seen that many organisations purchase phones in a different way than other IT products. For example, many make a deal with the service provider that allows the staff to choose a phone within a certain price range.
Here it would, of course, be possible to request that the staff could only choose between more sustainable phones, but this is often not considered. One reason could be that the organisation considers it as if it is purchasing a service rather than a product. The focus is then on the monthly cost and conditions of the service rather than the products.”
TCO Certified suggests a simple way of trying to resolve this problem: service providers should have a section of their website dedicated to the sale of more sustainable phones. This would make it easier for a consumer or organisation who wants to buy a more sustainable product and it would send a clear message to the phone industry to start improving the sustainability of the phones and to certify them to prove this.
As there are currently no phones that receive TCO certification, we recommend opting for Fairphone. Greater demand for Fairphone sends a message to other brands that sustainability is increasingly important for consumers.