it’s hard to buy ethically because there are so many issues to take into account when buying any product
[Smartphones have] so many components from different countries, which all have their own challenges regarding fairness.
Devices vary, but your average smartphone may use more than 60 different metals. Many of them are rare earth metals, so-called because they’re available in smaller quantities than many other metals, if not genuinely rare.
Often, these substances are found in conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Labor issues are often at the heart of the most controversial stories concerning the technology industry. In January, Bloomberg exposed working conditions at the Catcher Technology Company factory in China, which makes iPhone casings. It revealed that some workers had to stand for 10 hours a day in a noxious, potentially toxic, environment without proper safety equipment.
If you’re on the hunt for a smartphone that isn’t produced with the sort of intensive labor that most of us would wince at, chances are you’re not going to be satisfied. Even smaller companies, like Fairphone, with its public commitment to offering a better deal, struggle with the systemic problems of the industry. Its handset is manufactured in Shenzhen, but as Huhne explains, “if you want to change the industry, you have to go where it is.” He says suppliers are often surprised when Fairphone reps ask how they could improve working conditions in partnership.
Smartphones, and consumer technology more generally, don’t just have the potential to harm the people building them. There is also the enormous environmental damage caused in the handsets’ production, through resource extraction, intensive manufacturing and transport.
The organization found there’s plenty of environmental blood that can be laid at the door of the smartphone. In the last decade, production of the devices has consumed nearly 968TWh, enough to power India for a year. In 2017, smartphones, and related products, made 50 metric tons of e-waste — discarded smart devices and their accessories — and it’s only going to get worse.
there’s iFixit, which publishes a chart of smartphones ranked by their repairability. Unsurprisingly, Fairphone 2 tops the list, and sadly the rest of the top five is filled out with older devices, like Motorola’s Droid Bionic and Atrix 4G (both 2011). The current run of flagship devices from from Google (6/10), Apple (6/10) and Samsung (4/10) demonstrate somewhat less commitment to repairability.
EPEAT, a green electronics standard based on the IEEE 1680 framework, helped supercharge environmental standards back in 2006. EPEAT grades consumer electronic products against 1680, awarding a bronze, silver and gold ranking. The regime includes mandates on recycled plastic, manufacturer recycling programs and a reduction on the use of hazardous materials. The latter category has helped drive down the use of poisonous substances like lead, cadmium and mercury in countless consumer devices.
But Schaffer’s report is critical of EPEAT’s leadership role, citing the moment when Apple released the 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina Display as its death-knell. The laptop shipped with a variety of non-upgradeable parts, a glued-in battery and a proprietary non-user-replaceable SSD. Despite this, the device was awarded gold certification, and in Schaffer’s eyes “effectively gutted the modularity criteria in the standard.”
the issue, right now, is with standards development itself. It can take the better part of a decade to produce a new standard, and it’s a laborious process of negotiation between the industry, its regulators and relevant stakeholders. “Because these standards-development processes are taking four, five, six years,” she explains that some smaller stakeholders “don’t have the financial wherewithal to continue.” Specifically, smaller IT companies, security experts and environmental advisors who lack the time and resources to remain involved. Gillis believes that this results in the standards’ development becoming unbalanced in favor of larger manufacturers.
It seems that big manufacturers have carte blanche to define their devices as environmentally friendly.