Nearly 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2016, and each unit scarred the environment in some way.
From the materials used to build the phone to the energy used to power it, smartphones have a staggering environmental impact, according to a new report from Greenpeace that assesses the sustainability of 17 leading smartphone providers using the standard American grading system of A through F.
“Behind this innovative 21st-century technology lie supply chain and manufacturing processes still reliant on 19th-century sources of energy, dangerous mining practices, hazardous chemicals, and poorly designed products that drive consumption of the Earth’s resources,” Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Technology report says. “This hidden reality stands in stark contrast to the forward-thinking, environmentally conscious image most IT companies project.”
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Smartphones have revolutionized the world by bringing people greater access to information and communication tools. They offer instant access to GPS, restaurant reviews, social justice opportunities, and dating. In countries such as India, more people have access to the devices than to toilets, showing how seemingly indispensable they have become.
Further, smartphones have facilitated conservation efforts around the world for rainforests and fragile aquatic ecosystems, according to Mashable. Advanced mapping and data collection tools through smartphones have allowed local communities to play a leading role in these activities.
Smartphone manufacturers, however, have been frequently criticized for their exploitation of labor, use of toxic chemicals, and waste generation.
According to the UN, the world generated 48.1 million tons of e-waste in 2014, and only a fraction was collected for recycling. A significant portion of this waste came from the smartphone industry.
“The glamourous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow man-made tunnels risking permanent lung damage,” Mark Dummett, Business & Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International, said in a press release for the organization’s report on the smartphone industry’s resource collection.
This criticism, led by environmental and human rights groups, have spurred brands to adopt better policies, but as this latest report shows, not enough progress is being made.
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Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals, which call for environmental sustainability and ethical working conditions. You can take action these issues here.
Among the brands studied in the report, not a single company received an A. Most companies received Ds and Fs, including Samsung, Amazon, and Google. Three of the four biggest smartphone providers in China, the biggest smartphone market, all received similarly dismal scores.
Apple turned out to be the second highest-ranking brand, with a B-, and the top spot went to the Netherlands brand Fairphone.
Greenpeace based their assessments on renewable energy, use of hazardous chemicals, and product sustainability. The analysts based their findings on publicly available data from each of the companies and met with 14 of the 17 companies to discuss sustainability efforts.
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Apple, for example, was commended for being the smartphone provider most committed to renewable energy throughout its supply chain and for advocating for renewable energy around the world. The bulk of each company’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from the supply chain, where products and parts are shipped, built, and assembled. Achieving 100% renewable energy on this front, as Apple intends to do, would be transformative.
The brand was criticized for poor product longevity, because of how it seems to build iPhones to be incapable of receiving repairs or upgrades, forcing consumers to always get the newest model, and how it works to block environmental standards for phones.
Finally, Apple was given good scores for phasing out hazardous chemicals in its supply chain, committing to limiting worker exposure to hazardous chemicals, and being transparent in this effort.
To take another example, Samsung, was heavily criticized for its lack of investments in renewable energy, its failure to create circular a supply chain that allows product materials to be repurposed, and its failure to remove hazardous chemicals from its supply chains.
In its annual sustainability report, Samsung says that it strives to adhere to the UN’s 17 Global Goals, by, for example, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 70% in its workplaces by 2020 from 2005 levels; preserve biodiversity in aquatic ecosystems that are often affected by industry pollution; and increase the ratio of “eco products” used by 90% by 2020.
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Fairphone was given the best score in the report for its transparent supply chain, its highly sustainable use of materials like recycled plastic and fair trade minerals, and its efforts to remove toxic chemicals from the supply chain.
Ultimately, consumer pressure can drive brands to adopt better policies, according to Greenpeace.
So in the time it takes to send a tweet or swipe right, let your smartphone provider know that you want more ethical and sustainable products.
As the report says:
“Now is the time for the tech sector to channel its expertise into reinventing the way that electronic devices are made and used in society, to reverse the ever-increasing consumption of the planet’s finite resources and reliance on fossil fuels, creating a circular and renewably powered business model that other sectors can follow.”