Can Smartphones Ever Be Ethical and Sustainable?

Environment > convenience

Key Takeaways

  • The Fairphone 3 Plus costs €469.00, or $547.
  • It achieved a 10/10 iFixit repairability score.
  • Apple could make its phones more repairable, but they would almost certainly be bigger.
The Fairphone 3's various components separated and spaced out

The Fairphone 3 is so repairable that it even comes with a screwdriver in the box. Compared to the iPhone, taking one apart is like snapping apart Lego. But can this ethical, sustainable model be scaled up to iPhone and Samsung Galaxy levels?

Fairphone is a "social enterprise" company based in the Netherlands. The Fairphone 3 (and 3 Plus) are the latest smartphones from this ethical and environmental company, which bills them as "the phone that cares for people and planet." The handsets are slim, look good, and are feature filled. They’re also modular, and get a 10/10 repairability score from iFixit. But is this sustainable model, well, sustainable?

Bad Phones, Dirty Phones

Apple is making a big effort to minimize the environmental impact of the iPhone. With the iPhone 12, it has even started to use recycled material to make the zillions of magnets it needs for the iPhone and its accessories. Even the cardboard packaging is recycled, and the iPhone 12 doesn’t include superfluous charging bricks or EarPods in the box.

But phones in general are an environmental and ethical problem. For instance, the rare-earth elements required for electronics have to be mined, and the conditions in those mines have, historically, been terrible. In China, mines poison local plants and animals, and kill the miners themselves.

"It’s fine to hold big corporations accountable when it comes to ethics and the environment, but we have to back that up with our own actions."

Another source of pollution is the manufacturing of the phones themselves, which create massive carbon emissions

And then there’s the waste. Phones can, in large part, be recycled, but only if the owners take them to be recycled. Old handsets that could still be used are kept in drawers until they really are useless, and dead phones are as likely to end up in a landfill as they are in something like Apple’s recycling program

The Fairphone

Remember when you could pop the back off your phone and swap out the battery? That option disappeared long ago, in the drive to make handsets thinner and lighter (a non-swappable battery can be molded to fit the space available, and doesn’t require a case that opens up).

The Fairphone not only lets you open the case and remove the battery in a moment, it also uses pop-out, interchangeable modules for many parts. Thus, you can replace the camera module, the speaker, and pretty much anything else. They just pop out, and you press the new one to fit. Even these modules are easy to open up and get inside—you just need a torx screwdriver.

iFixit removing the Fairphone 3's components using two small screwdrivers

The downside of this modularity is a bigger, clunkier handset, but even that’s not much of a downside these days, with phones growing bigger to accommodate larger screens.

Perhaps the worst part of the Fairphone is that it’s just not that great. The Verge reviewed the latest Fairphone 3 Plus, and found it to be unexceptional. 

"It has a 1080p LCD display that doesn’t get very bright with colors that look a little washed out [and] its single speaker is average," writes The Verge’s Jon Porter. "Performance-wise, the Fairphone 3 Plus chugs. It’s powered by a Snapdragon 632 with 4GB of RAM, which translates into a two-year-old chip with an amount of RAM that only budget Android handsets try to get away with these days."


Repairability and Doing Our Part

So, is it possible for a sustainable phone to also be a good phone? And could its manufacture be scaled up the hundreds of millions of units required by Apple and Samsung?

The answer is yes. But only if we, as customers, are willing to play our part.

"But phones in general are an environmental and ethical problem."

Apple is clearly committed to greening its business. The iPhone already uses lots of recycled parts, packaging gets smaller and smaller, and the entire company is carbon-neutral, including its stores. Apple is even forcing its suppliers to follow along. But Apple is equally committed to smaller, sleeker iPhones every year, and even runs an annual upgrade program.

At the same time, third-party repairability keeps getting worse. The iPhone 12 won’t even let you swap in a new camera unit without Apple’s proprietary configuration app.

"Apple, by design or neglect or both, is making it extremely hard to repair an iPhone without their blessing," writes iFixit’s Kevin Purdy. "It is also possible that Apple is planning on locking out all unauthorized iPhone camera and screen repairs."

We don’t need hot-swappable batteries or screens. We just need to be able to replace them easily and cheaply when they go bad or break. Apple clearly has the ability to make its phones more repairable, and it’s possible it could do it without making the iPhone too bulky. 

At the same time, us buyers have to help. We have to keep using our phones for years, not "upgrading" them every 12 or 18 months. We must repair instead of replace, and we must either pass on older handsets when possible, or recycle them when the end finally comes.

It’s fine to hold big corporations accountable when it comes to ethics and the environment, but we have to back that up with our own actions.

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