Behind The Label: The Cell Phone Industry

Cell phones are changing the world, in both good ways and bad.

Last week’s highly-anticipated release of the iPhone 5 signaled to the world that despite a global recession, the cell phone industry shows no signs of slowing down. It is estimated that 85 percent of the world’s population currently has access to a mobile phone, and a new report by Ericsson predicts that by 2017, that same percentage will have access to 3G mobile Internet.

This level of global connectivity and access to information is unprecedented in human history, and social entrepreneurs are quick to jump on mobile technology as a solution to problems like poverty, inequality, and disease. At the same time, the cell phone industry has come under fire for its use of potentially harmful materials, questionable labor practices, and manipulative marketing schemes that encourage disposability, planned obsolescence, and unnecessary consumption. This week’s Behind the Label weighs the benefits of mobile technology against the downsides of the cell phone industry.

In 1983, Motorola released the first mobile telephone, futuristically dubbed the DynaTAC 8000X. The $3995 phone was almost comical in its heft (2 pounds) and design (remember cordless phones?). However, the release of the phone forecasted a future in which people could be connected, even when they were on the go.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, phones became smaller, slimmer, and more affordable. Companies like Nokia, Motorola, and Kyocera led the charge with models that blended form and function (who could forget Nokia’s funky removable faceplates?). At the same time, companies like Palm, Handspring, and Blackberry began developing mobile devices that doubled as personal digital assistants.

This evolution and proliferation of cell phones set the stage for Apple‘s release of the first-generation iPhone smartphone in early 2007. The phone’s sleekness, simplicity, and functionality made it an instant game-changer, one that continues to spark rumors and draw record sales with every new release.

The Good

The spread of mobile technology, particularly in the developing world, makes the cell phone a useful tool for tackling global issues. In a recent article, Mashable highlighted five ways that mobile is the future of sustainable development:

These are just a few ways that mobile has had an impact in the developing world. But even in the developed world, cell phones have yielded benefits. Remember when you couldn’t call a friend to say you were running late, or look up that song lyric that was driving you crazy? Problem solved, thanks to smartphones.

Mobile apps assist millions of users with services like email, maps, and weather forecasts, and some have revolutionized entire industries. If you want to purchase music, you no longer need to buy a plastic-encased CD with a paper leaflet – you can download individual tracks, or better yet, stream them. Avid readers don’t need to contribute to deforestation by purchasing physical copies of books, newspapers, and magazines – they can access the information online through free or subscription-based services. Then, of course, there are the dozens of mobile apps we’ve highlighted here on EcoSalon, which can help you live a more conscious lifestyle by reducing your carbon footprint, getting in touch with nature, eating better, and becoming a more socially responsible shopper.

The Bad

In recent years, dozens of environmental and ethical issues related to cell phone production, marketing, use, and disposal have come to light.

It starts with the production of the phone. According to a UL White Paper on the Life Cycle of Materials in Mobile Phones, most cell phones consist of approximately 40% metal and 40% plastic, with the rest of the gadget comprising glass, ceramic, and miscellaneous material. A significant environmental consideration is the energy required to extract the metals used in cell phones, particularly copper, gold, silver, and palladium. In addition, materials like gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten are often mined in conflict areas, earning them the title of “conflict minerals” by organizations like Raise Hope for Congo, which attempts to educate consumers about the relationship between consumer electronics and violence in Eastern Congo.

That’s not to mention the labor issues that were revealed in an episode of NPR’s “This American Life” earlier this year. The piece, which was excerpted from Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” sought to expose the unethical working conditions at Foxconn Technology, the massive Chinese manufacturer that supplies companies like Apple, Motorola, and Nokia. Though the piece was later retracted due to faulty evidence, Foxconn’s reputation was dealt a hefty blow, particularly after reports of mass suicides and worker riots, and the publication of an undercover expose from The Shanghai Evening Post on working conditions leading up to the iPhone 5 release.

Then, there are the ethical issues involved in using a cell phone. Most smartphones rely on accessing data stored in “the cloud,” a digital infrastructure that allows companies to deliver services over the Internet. Though the term sounds nebulous, this infrastructure, in reality, is powered by massive data centers that, “by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner,” according to a recent special investigation from The New York Times. The article went on to explain that these digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, but only about 6 to 12 percent of that electricity is used for actual operations. According to the analysis, “the rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.”

And finally, there’s the disposal of your cell phone once it’s reached the end of its useful life. Cell phones are classified as a form of toxic waste, thanks to high levels of lead, copper, nickel, antimony, and zinc present in most phone bodies and batteries. Once these gadgets reach the landfill, they leach dangerous amounts of toxins, which then infiltrate the land and nearby water sources. Most of America’s toxic “e-waste” is exported, often to landfills near poor communities in the developing world. A recent CBS News 60 Minutes report tracked one carton of “e-waste” from Colorado to the western Chinese town of Guiyu, where reporters found unbreathable air, undrinkable water, and the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world.

Layered on top of these life-cycle concerns is the troubling issue of the mobile industry’s manic marketing machine, which often turns a new phone into an unfashionable or unusable relic in a matter of a few years. This business strategy even has a name: planned obsolescence. The New York Times’ David Pogue described it well:

The electronics industry itself is built upon frequent renewal. The iPhone, iPod or iPad you buy today will be obsolete within a year. Every pocket camera model on sale today will no longer be sold six months from now. And Android phones — forget it. They seem to come out every Friday afternoon.

But while we can certainly blame the cell phone industry for this phenomenon, we may be equally to blame, says Pogue.

Does technology really advance that quickly? Or is planned obsolescence at work? It doesn’t matter. In the end, we’re as much to blame as the electronics companies. The manufacturers are simply catering to some fundamental human drives. It’s style; it’s status; it’s the confidence of knowing that we’re not missing out on anything. Owning outdated technology makes us feel outdated ourselves.


So What Now?

Though mobile technology provides a definite benefit to the world, the industry is still plagued with environmental and ethical issues. There are, however, ways you can make your mobile habits more socially responsible. Here are a few.

Assess Your Needs

If you use your cell phone primarily to talk and text, a simple flip phone may be all you need to stay connected. But if your phone serves as your digital camera, your music player, your GPS device, your news reader, and your very best friend, you’re probably better served with a functionality-packed device like the iPhone, especially if owning that one device eliminates the need for all those others.

Consider a “Green” Phone

According to Juniper Research, sales of environmentally-friendly cell phones – defined as those that are free of hazardous chemicals and contain half or more recyclable materials – will reach 400 million by 2017. Treehugger recently published a round-up of the most eco-friendly cell phones on the market, which includes the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T) and the Samsung Replenish (Sprint). In addition, UL Environment recently created a sustainability standard for cell phones, which takes into account the phone’s materials, energy consumption, energy consumption control, available networks, packaging, and end of life options. Currently, 29 mobile phones are included in ULE’s Sustainable Product Database.

Compare Service Providers

EcoSalon recently compared the eco-credentials of AT&T and Verizon, with Verizon winning out for its environmental accomplishments, which include reducing carbon emissions by more than 793 million pounds in 2009, reducing energy consumption by 84 million kilowatt hours in 2009, and establishing the telecom industry’s first energy-efficient standards in 2008. But don’t just take it from us; before you sign a contract, research and inquire about your cell phone provider’s environmental commitment.

Dispose Responsibly

If you must get rid of your phone, make sure you do it responsibly. First, follow the proper recycling procedures: cancel your service contract, delete all personal information, and remove your SIM card, battery, and accessories. A number of retailers, like Apple and Best Buy offer buy-back and recycling programs, which tend to offer credits or discounts toward future phone purchases. You can also donate your phone to a non-profit like 911 Cell Phone Bank, which provides emergency phones to victim service organizations, or Cell Phones for Soldiers, which donates phones to military veterans.


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Images: Peretz Partensky, Erik Hersman

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.