In this article, we look at what ethical phones and computers are, what makes them ‘ethical’ and what contribution they could be making to helping the environment by tackling issues such as the growing e-waste mountain.
The world currently has a significant problem with electronic waste in terms of a “take, make, consume, dispose” attitude, mounting volumes of production and disposal, and little engagement with the ‘circular economy’ by many manufacturers. For example, the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report (2020) shows that e-waste is now the fastest growing global waste stream with a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste generated worldwide in 2019, up 21 per cent in just five years. Not only does the worldwide pile of electronic waste weigh more than all the commercial airliners ever made, or the Great Wall of China (WEEE), but less than 20 per cent of the world’s e-waste is collected and recycled. This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials (conservatively valued at US $57 billion), are simply dumped or burned, and there is a huge pollution-centred environmental impact.
There are also arguments that many of the factory workers who manufacture electronic goods such as phone handsets are on low wages, while governments are overlooking opportunities to promote and incentivise more re-use and re-cycling of the kinds of scarce materials found in e-waste. There are also questions about ethics and responsibility and whether manufacturers are putting profits before the planet and people.
Making phones and computers that can be repaired by their users (rather than just by approved repairers) is seen as another important way to help reduce the e-waste mountain. The ‘right-to-repair’ movement is one that seeks to have rules/legislation passed that forces manufacturers of electrical products such as phones to make parts (and information) available to end customers, not just approved/authorised repairers, and technicians, so that it is possible for end-users to fix the product(s) at home. The basic idea is that this could help tackle built-in obsolescence, thereby prolonging product life cycles, creating better value and saving money for consumers, and reducing the number of products going to waste thereby helping the environment. Ethical phones and other ethical devices have the ‘right-to-repair’ built-in to their design.
How Could Ethical Electronic Devices Help?
If devices such as ethical phones and computers are manufactured with fair trade, welfare of workers, repair, and recycling already built into the business model from the outset, and if there is wide market adoption, it could have a much more positive environmental impact (than the current untenable situation) and could slow and cuts the flow of e-waste, plus help countries to meet their environmental targets.
What Is An ‘Ethical’ Phone?
An ethical phone is one that has been manufactured with the circular economy in mind and the end-of-life of the product being incorporated into its design and manufacture (repair and recycling). Taking ‘Fairphone’ as an example of an ‘ethical phone ’, it offers:
– A take-back scheme so that customers can easily return the handset, thereby giving the opportunity of recycling the phones rather than sending them to landfill.
– A handset that’s ‘e-waste neutral’ because an equivalent volume of electronics is recycled per phone that’s sold.
– Workers who manufacture the handsets have a living wage bonus scheme enabling them to (depending on targets) receive 30 per cent extra on their wages.
– Ethically sourced precious metals and recycled metals are used in the handset manufacture, which includes aluminium and tungsten, plus recycled tin, copper, and rare earth metals. Also, Fairphone claims to be the first and only smartphone company to integrate Fairtrade gold in its supply chain.
– Recycled plastic for the phone casing.
– A modular design to minimise both repair costs and downtime. This helps tackle popular phone damage issues such as screen damage (accounts for 67.4% of phone repairs) and battery problems (33.9% of phone repairs).
– The right-to-repair built-in to the design with handsets able to be repaired using just a screwdriver and easy access to parts. This coupled with the phone’s modular design can give it longevity, thereby reducing the need for a new phone and reducing the environmental impact.
Phone Manufacturers Turning To More Ethical Ideas
Apple, for example, recently announced the introduction of its “self-service repair” programme, beginning next year, which will give iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 customers access to parts and information which will allow them to repair their own phones.
There are now ethical computers on the market which have many of the same ideas as ethical phones incorporated in their design and manufacture. For example:
– The Iameco D4R (laptop) – this is encased in recycled wood and made so that it can be repaired easily and components can be swapped. The company claims that this laptop model accounts for at least 30 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 75 per cent less freshwater use compared to standard laptops.
– Aleutia PCs – which is made primarily for use in the developing world, (where there is little access to grid power); these computers use solar cells for power.
– VeryPC computers (e.g., the Broadleaf model) – are built to ‘green’ principles. In 2009, for example, the company set out to build “the most sustainable PC on the planet”.
– More well-known brands introducing models with a more environmental focus. For example, these include the Lenovo ThinkPad L Series laptops with their low energy consumption and more post-consumer recycled content (30 per cent) than other ThinkPads.
What Does This Mean For Your Organisation?
Organisations get through a lot of phones, computers, and other electrical devices, and although they may be happy to promote environmental aspects of their operations and services, this aspect (i.e., the problem of contributing to the e-waste mountain) is often overlooked. As Fairphone points out, choosing ethical phones is a way that organisations can make a conscious decision to contribute to globally recognised UN Sustainable Development Goals, and it is an opportunity to send a clear signal about environmental and ethical values as an organisation, and as an employer. Consumers, employees, customers, and other stakeholders are increasingly conscious of the environment and value the environmental credentials of organisations. Using ethical phones and devices, therefore, is a way to both help the environment, and enjoy the benefits of improved customer attitudes to an organisation.