Otto von Bismarck is credited with saying, “Laws are like sausages: it is better to not see them being made.” Were the straight-talking German statesman alive today, he might swap out the word “sausages” with “smartphones” in his famous witticism. That’s because like it or not, the electronic gadgets we love, and smartphones in particular, come at a high ecological and social cost.
Today’s cellular phones are miniature computers. Like their full-sized and tablet-sized brethren, it takes significant mining of materials, shipping through complex supply chain networks, and plenty of low-cost labor to put them together as inexpensively as they are. With more and more people demanding to know what goes on behind the scenes of the products they buy, we thought it would be helpful to know which manufacturers are making smartphones the most responsibly.
The late Chancellor Bismarck’s advice on ugly processes notwithstanding, it’s a worthwhile thing to be curious – and concerned — about. What you typically won’t see or hear about as a smartphone consumer: the desperate poverty, poor working conditions, and sometimes violence endured by the African miners who extract the necessary metals; what type of pay and work environment phone assemblers (usually in China or India) labor under; and the environmental damage caused by regulation-flouting mining operations.
Cell phones also contain various amounts of toxic chemicals, including lead, PVCs, phthalates, and a host of other compounds you definitely would not want seeping into your community water table.
Fortunately, these issues have prompted a lot of scrutiny, and encouraged more than a few outfits (like Greenpeace and the website HealthyStuff) to rank smartphones by how environmentally and socially responsible the processes are for building them. We took a look at some of these lists and have recognized here the smartphones consistently ranked among the greenest. In no particular order:
1. Motorola Citrus
Yes, it’s old! It’s “low-end” for an Android phone. And the reality is that some of the greenest phones in terms of hazardous materials and energy consumption aren’t the newest and flashiest. If you don’t care about the latest whiz-bang features and just need a phone that can get you on the internet and shoot decent selfies, then perhaps an oldie but goodie like this one is the way to go.
2. iPhone 4S and iPhone 5
On a materials basis, the older iPhone 4 S is actually greener than its successor, according to HealthyStuff.org, which disassembled and analyzed the phones on this list, plus hundreds more.
3. Samsung Galaxy S3
There were actually several phones ranked “greener” ahead of the S3; but given its Colossus-like status among newer smartphones, it seemed OK to bump Samsung’s Android machine up a few notches. And of course, you can find good price deals now that the S4 is out.
4. HTC Evo 4G LTE
This 2012 model is still a solid performer, while a not-excessive level of toxics prevent it from setting off the guilt-o-meter.
Known for its line of Lumia smartphones, Nokia is a bit of a strange bird. While its individual handsets aren’t all that distinguished in the “green” arena, the overall company is. Nokia ranked in the top spot among cell phone makers and third overall in Greenpeace’s 2012 ranking of electronics firms.
At the risk of stating the obvious, allow us to say this is not a definitive list: for one thing, the definition of “green” itself is quite subjective; and for another, manufacturers are constantly updating their phones – perhaps green credentials will one day be considered as important a competitive feature as things like screen resolution and processor power.
In the future, finding the perfect smartphone might get easier. TCO Development, a certification body based in Sweden, this year started offering sustainability certifications for new cell phones, but not without controversy.
One company that’s taken direct aim at the smartphone issue is the Dutch firm Fairphone. With deliveries expected to begin around October 2013, it was an effort launched specifically to give buyers more peace of mind about where their phones come from. Unfortunately for potential U.S. customers, the phone seems to be very Eurocentric in its availability and types of networks it can run on, at least for now.
Ideally, we’d hold onto our phones for as long as possible and buy refurbished ones when the old ones no longer meet our needs. From a green perspective, at least, that certainly beats caving to the pressure to buy the latest, slickest model as soon as it comes out. Less consumption, after all, means a lower environmental footprint. But the reality is that phones do wear out, slow down, and generally become obsolete.
The good news is that you can send a message to phone manufacturers about how your values shape your purchasing decisions. Next time you’re in the market for a smartphone, consider taking its environmental rating into account before you buy.