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Mobile Moralities

Tuesday 7 September 2010
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Everyday items seriously increase your carbon footprint. As part of an ongoing investigation into our habits, goods and the environment, Giles Crosse examines ways we might make mobile phones more eco friendly.

Virtually everyone has one. Indeed the
mobile phone is seen by many as a key icon of development, technology and a smaller, more linked in world.

And this of course is very true. Never before have so many people been able to communicate so easily. This means all kinds of potentially wonderful things, from better, more meaningful relationships to safer ways to keep in touch with our children.

As with everything in our lives though, these advantages come at a cost. Mobiles look and feel very warm and friendly. But historically they’ve been packed full of fossil based plastics, or potentially harmful chemicals and metals used in circuit boards.

Then there is all the packaging. It’s safe to bet the last mobile phone you bought was surrounded by cardboard and plastic, with individually wrapped charger, headphone set, and any number of other nifty gadgets.

No one is suggesting there’s a need to get rid of the mobile. It’s just about making sure this success story can switch to one of greener production, distribution and generally more intelligent consumption patterns.

Power in your pocket

As is the truth with any product, you and I can very easily deliver change, if we choose to do so. The building trade no longer considers using asbestos acceptable. Culturally, we no longer accept drink driving, or smoking in public places.

The processes and materials which go into mobile phones need be no different. It’s just a question of how quickly society decides it wants to create the change. Some mobile manufacturers and networks have already seen which way the wind is blowing. They are reacting.

On 25 August, 2010, O2 launched what it says is the UK’s first eco rating scheme for mobile phones. O2 reckons ‘there are 4.1 billion mobile phones in circulation worldwide with a combined carbon footprint over their lifetime of more than 100 million tonnes. That’s the equivalent of taking every car and HGV in the UK off the road and grounding domestic flights for a year. With 1712 mobile phones being replaced every minute in the UK it’s easy to see how small improvements can make a huge difference, and Eco rating looks at much more than just CO2.’

This is where things get interesting. Virtually any eco rating can be skewed to favour certain circumstances, manufacturers or sciences. What’s it all based on?

‘Eco rating’s scoring system is based on data supplied by manufacturers,’ explains O2’s data on the programme. ‘It looks at the overall environmental impact of the device over its lifespan: the raw materials it contains; the impacts caused by its manufacture; its packaging; its longevity and energy efficiency; and how easy it is to reuse or recycle.’

This is commonly known in environmental circles as life cycle assessment, or LCA. ‘It considers the functionality of handsets, and highlights devices which help people live more sustainable lives, for example by replacing the need to own a separate camera or music player, or by providing software to plan journeys by public transport or on foot,’ says O2, explaining further its rating system.

This sounds a bit less certain. Providing software to show people how to walk does not actually get people out of their cars walking, though it may be an incentive.

‘It also takes into account the ethical performance of manufacturers including labour standards in the supply chain, safety and environmental principles, social inclusion and community programmes, and carbon and water management,’ continues O2.

Manufacturers answer questions relating to their handsets based on Policy, Management systems, Supply chain requirements, Supplier management, Communications, Social inclusion and community, Climate change and energy, Resource use – handset obsolescence and waste kit and External recognition.

Other criteria include Raw materials and manufacturing impacts, Substance impacts, Packaging and delivery, Use impacts, Disposal impacts and Functionality. 

Action for change?

So, can you just glance over the results and walk away happy you’re carrying the greenest mobile about? Not necessarily. For a start, Apple has decided not to participate in the initiative, saying that it publishes its own data on its website.

That’s a stumbling block, because Apple’s products play a key part in this market. Of course you decide not to buy Apple purely because they wouldn’t get involved. The entire project has been carried out in partnership with Forum for the Future, which is a respected name in UK sustainability circles.

There’s another slight problem. Clicking on the ‘See our phone ratings’ link from O2’s Think Big Planet site explaining the scheme, just takes you straight into the O2 shop. It may just be me, but I was expecting to see a differentiated list, or at least some guidance into which phones were worse or better than others.

In fairness, when you click on any phone within the online shop, an Eco Rating is now visible. It looks like this

Eco rating2: 3.4/5

That’s for the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10. My very own device scores 3.6/5. Then, I hit the jackpot. Peering at the ‘Know what you’re looking for’ drop down menu, I found I could search for phones with the best eco rating.

This is something pretty meaningful. It’s rare for a network to freely publish results which will necessarily increase and reduce sales for its partner manufacturers. This also illustrates a fair degree of honesty and transparency from the manufacturers themselves.

In time honoured fashion, it’s still very tough to make simple judgements on the sustainable merits of what you buy in the shops tomorrow. But to even have the choice to ask for the ratings for two or three options, or to just work it out yourself before you head out, is welcome indeed.

Dr. James Taplin is Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future. He explains more on the science of product impacts:

“Across the lifecycle of the phone, the biggest impact comes during the manufacturing stage - so the longer you use your phone the better since you spread the manufacturing impact over a longer period of time and avoid the impact of a new device.

“This longevity question is addressed in the eco rating tool through corporate questions about product obsolescence, and device specific questions, for instance about extending the usefulness and desirability of the device through hardware or software updates,”

“In general terms, however,” he says, “I do think there is an increasing trend for keeping devices for longer. O2 was the first network, I believe, to offer Sim only deals (SIMplicity) which encourages consumers to keep their old handsets after the end of their contract, and average length of contracts in the UK is also going up, from the standard 12 months a little while ago, to 18 or 24 now.

“For phone makers, it’s a little more difficult, although we are seeing that smartphone technology has now reached such a level that the rate of significant change is decreasing so that there is less need to update phones so often.

“So, whilst some people will always want the latest piece of kit, its frequently the case that their ‘old’ phone is passed on to friends or family who are less bothered about latest developments, and for whom the device is more than sufficient to meet their needs for many more years to come,”

Taplin also explains the developing world will have a key role to play. “The world market for mobile communications is expanding at an enormous rate. There are some 4.1 billion phone subscribers today, rising to somewhere closer to six billion within the next decade.

“Many of these new consumers are in emerging economies, for whom the advent of mobile connectivity brings enormous social sustainability benefits.

“It’s not a sufficient excuse for ugrading phones frequently, but it should be recognised that if those replaced phones are of good quality, and are recycled into reuse markets responsibly, then they do provide many years of onward use for other consumers, and often at a price to those consumers which is cheaper than it would have cost them to get a new, or less good device. Telecommunications are global, and the use of hardware could also be viewed in the same light,” he explains.

Tomorrow’s moves

According to Taplin, the industry is already doing a lot to reduce impacts of mobile phones. There are strong supply chain management practices already in place for some manufacturers, being developed further by others, which help make the process of manufacturing more sustainable, and there are actions being taken by all to phase out substances which could prove harmful at the disposal stage if the phones aren’t recycled responsibly.

There will always be impacts associated with the manufacture of the componentry of devices, like their integrated circuits, wiring boards, and LCD screens, but these are mostly due to the resources and energy needed to manufacture them.

“The most important thing, therefore, is to ensure that the impact of that manufacture is worthwhile from a total sustainability perspective, and that the devices created are high quality, long lasting, and bring significant sustainability benefits to society,” Taplin continues.

“The total CO2 impact of a phone over its lifetime is somewhere around 25kg. With 4.1 billion phones in use, that adds up to a lot of carbon, hence the need to make each as sustainable as possible, but it does also show that if a phone can genuinely replace the need for the manufacture of another device (like a separate SatNav), or replace the need for some physical travel, then its manufacturing impact is worthwhile to society.

“This is the reason why Eco rating also looks at some of these functionality questions when assessing the total sustainability impact of a device.

“Packaging is a relatively small overall part of the total impact of a phone, although it consistently gets greater attention paid to it than it usually warrants because of its very visible impact to consumers and their interaction with it,” he says, describing why packaging seems such an obvious area to improve.

“It also has knock on effects on transport, so Eco rating has a section dedicated to packaging and associated logistics efficiency. This is designed to do precisely what you say, and drive packaging efficiencies further by rewarding packaging with less wasted space, use of recycled and recyclable materials, and the avoidance of secondary packaging materials. 

“It also encourages the supply of devices without physical manuals, or ancillary devices, plus it rewards devices which have standardised components, like a 3.5mm headphone jack, or being universal charger compliant, which means that there is less need to ship all devices with headsets & chargers.” Taplin explains. This makes a lot of sense, as one of the most frustrating things is the need to buy separate headphones for each phone, as manufacturers use different jacks to force us into purchasing.

What about the future, how will the mobile industry have changed in ten years to improve sustainability?

“Good question, who knows?” smiles Taplin. “I would hope that one of the changes will have been to shift from a product to a service model. Consumers don’t necessarily want a device, but they want the attributes that that device gives them, the ability to talk to people, to listen to music, to take pictures, to navigate, to be the envy of their friends, to say something about who they are.

Networks don’t need people to be upgrading their devices all the time, what they want is for people to continue to use their services, so they provide the option for consumers to have new phones that deliver the changing attributes that they want,”

Taplin reckons that what manufacturers want is for people to be using their devices, and to be getting ongoing revenue from the market. “The way they currently get this is by selling new devices, but if they could build more direct relationships with consumers, they could instead provide the changing attributes that they want through ‘leasing’ them a device, then changing it as the consumer wants, and recovering the previous device for refurbishment and then leasing to another consumer.

“This shifts the industry to a closed loop model which is likely to be increasingly important to manufacturers as global demand rises; resources get more stretched; costs of resource extraction, transport and refining get more expensive; and supplies of some metals peak.

“As this happens, it becomes more imperative for manufacturers to protect the raw materials they need to create their devices, and the best way of doing that is to ensure they get them back at the end of their device’s life,” he concludes.

Here’s what O2 says are your top choices:

The six manufacturers participating in the scheme are: Nokia, Sony Ericsson, HTC, LG, Samsung and Palm. The handsets included represent 93 per cent of the devices ranged by O2.

The highest scoring handset is the Sony Ericsson Elm with an Eco rating of 4.3 out of 5. Six phones then tied in second place with a score of 4.0. These are in alphabetical order: Nokia 1800, Nokia 6700, Samsung GT-S8500, Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini, Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini pro and the Sony Ericsson Zylo.

Scores for all 65 devices can be found on O2’s online shop, https://shop.o2.co.uk 

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O2 Eco Rating

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