Fairphone vs. Second-Hand Phone: Which is More Eco-Friendly?


People fail to realize that the environmental impact of the mobile phone industry is enormous. With over 60% of the world’s population owning some form of mobile device, the potential for waste, energy use, raw material demand, and greenhouse gas production is through the roof.

Contemplate these frightening facts:

  • 140,000,000 (140 million) phones are thrown into landfills every year.
  • Phones contain many harmful chemical substances (lead, lithium, arsenic, copper, cadmium, mercury, and zinc) that will contaminate soil and groundwater after breaking down.
  • Production and delivery of a new mobile phone will produce, on average, 75kg of CO2.

The alarming rate of technological innovation coupled with a market driven solely by competition and profit has caused the release of multiple new phones every year. Humans constantly want what is newer, faster, and better looking – we have been brainwashed by tech companies to buy their products and replace our phones every two years on average. Imagine the waste this is producing.

So, what is more eco-friendly? Fairphone or second-hand phone?

While buying a Fairphone is certainly more sustainable than other types of brand-new smartphones, it is likely that purchasing a refurbished second-hand mobile device is more eco-friendly.

There are many factors that determined the answers to this question, keep reading as we evaluate the Fairphone business model and compare that to their rivalling tech giants.

Fairphone

“A phone embodies an extraordinary paradox: it facilitates our potential connection with pretty much everybody, yet we have zero connection with its manufacture.”

Bas van Abel, founder of Fairphone

It is a bold claim to be the producers of “The world’s most sustainable smartphones.” You have to admire Fairphone’s mission to change the electronics industry from the inside, but it begs the question: Is it too little, too late?

Sustainable Sourcing

The Dutch mobile phone company are environmental activists, creating their devices from recycled and fair-trade materials. The majority of phone manufacturers source their raw materials from mining companies – renowned for pollution, dangerous working conditions, and child-labor.

Fairphone actively source more sustainable and responsible materials to use in their manufacturing process to reduce their ecological footprint and produce more environmental products. They are also hopeful that in doing this they will raise awareness of unsustainable material sourcing within the electronics industry, and perhaps make people stop and think how their phone was actually made.

Modular Design

Another aspect of mobile device manufacturing that Fairphone are facing head-on is e-waste. They are ignoring the ‘new phone every year’ business model and are specifically designing their devices to last. Their robust modular design allows consumers to repair individual broken parts with ease – the phone even comes with a screwdriver!

All spare parts are readily available on the Fairphone website, encouraging users to repair their own device. The integration of software which is supported for over 5 years further extends the Fairphones longevity.

Prolonging a phone’s life from one year to four has the potential to decrease its environmental impact by almost 40%!

No unecessary accesories

Another step they take to reduce waste is not providing a brand-new charger, cable, and earphones with every unit sold. Let’s be honest, who uses the headphones from the box? They end up being stuffed in a drawer or worse, chucked in the bin!

All of these factors have contributed to Fairphone receiving a gold Ecovadis medal, the only smartphone company in the world to do so. This places them in the top 1% of the industry in regard to sustainability. 

Second-hand Phone

We get it. Phones in 2020 are as important as oxygen it seems, but buying a new phone is not smart or ecologically friendly.

As the vast majority of a phone’s carbon footprint originates in the manufacturing process, the most eco-friendly devices are second-hand. A lot of people change their smartphone within 18 months, and the vast majority of these used phones still have a lot of… use.

Tech companies, eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook are good sources for used or refurbished phones, and many come with lengthy warranties.

There are a multitude of benefits that come from buying a used phone instead of a brand-new iPhone 11 (even though Apple is moving in the right direction, more on this later).

Less Landfill & Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The more pre-owned mobiles that remain in the market reduces the number of phones ending up in landfill, leaching harmful chemicals into the biosphere. It’s simple really, the more used devices sold, the less waste is produced.

But wait, there’s more! Buying a second-hand mobile will reduce the production of greenhouse gasses as an entirely new device is not required to be manufactured, preventing 165 lbs of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

Saving Energy

With the vast number of new devices being churned out the production line every year, it is no surprise these factories use an obscene amount of energy.

Enough energy could be saved to power a family household for an entire year from the recycling and re-use of just 500 phones. If those 140 million phones that are thrown into landfill each year were recycled, this would be saving sufficient energy to power nearly 300,000 homes annually.

Turn the Tide

Purchasing a second-hand device does not only reduce waste production and greenhouse gas emissions, it also encourages the enormous tech companies, such as Apple and Samsung, to take a step in the right direction. If more used mobiles are sold it sends a clear message that there is a demand for more sustainable manufacturing. The smartphone industry must make drastic changes to reduce their environmental impact – but it starts with you. Buy used.

So, which is more eco-friendly – Buying a Fairphone or a Second-Hand Mobile?

The most sustainable phone available is the one you already own. But when our phones inevitably break, it is now more important than ever to consider the ecological footprint and the sustainability of the new device we choose.

Obviously, choose whichever brand of phone you want. We are not trying to force your hand here, simply laying out the facts.

While Fairphone is definitely going down the right track in regard to sustainability, it simply cannot keep up with the tech giants, like Apple.

Apple has gone far beyond Fairphone to make a more sustainable device as they have much greater resources to do so and have been making “green” refurbished iPhones for years.

Apple Are Improving

  • Has achieved the first smartphone that is made with 100% recycled rare earth elements in the taptic engine in the iPhone 11.
  • Uses 100% recycled tin within the main logic board.
  • Use much less harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process.
  • 100% of the wood fiber packaging is from recycled and responsible sources.

With Apple offering certified refurbished products for a fraction of the original cost, this seems like undoubtedly the most ecologically and economically friendly option. They also encourage users to return their old devices to be refurbished or recycled, further adding to their sustainability efforts.

However, the only way for smaller companies like Fairphone to make a difference is by being supported in their mission. If you purchase a Fairphone you are endorsing their message of sustainability, fair trade, repairability, and anti-consumerism. As they are not competing for consumers, they do not have to release a new range of devices every 6 months or less.

We must also consider software sustainability. Old and used devices can be made redundant by forced software updates that no longer support older models.

Remember back in 2017 when Apple admitted to slowing down older models of their iPhones? Were they doing this to boost sales of newer models? To fill up landfills with useless iPhone 5’s? Or perhaps it truly was an issue with aging lithium-ion batteries. Who knows?

All we know is Fairphone devices are supplied with software that lasts 5 years. If a company this size manages, what is Apple’s excuse?

It is important to remember that the sustainability of electronic devices is mainly determined around what happens after the device packs up. So, it is all well and good to purchase either a second-hand phone or Fairphone, but if you then just throw it away and don’t dispose of it in a sustainable way you are causing more harm than good.

As mobile phones are one of the largest contributors of e-waste, it is crucial that you recycle your phone correctly to allow valuable materials to be repurposed and the toxic materials to be processed.

Looking to the Future

As the onslaught of new phone models continues to flood the market it is clear we are heading in the wrong direction. Instead of manufacturers being controlled by competition and company growth, they must take a stand and employ a business model similar to Fairphones.

If Apple, Samsung, and Huawei all agreed to create devices that were built to last and perhaps even offered incentives for people to retain their current devices, it would drastically reduce the environmental impact of the mobile phone industry.

But who are we kidding? That is incredibly optimistic and totally unrealistic.

All we know is that you can make a small impact! Be the change that you wish to see – buying either a Fairphone or a second-hand phone are both great alternatives to buying new and will significantly reduce your ecological footprint. Just make sure you recycle the device using specialist e-waste facilities.

Lloyd Heathfield

Lloyd Heathfield is a Biological Science graduate who has always had a passion for innovative technology, especially that of an environmental nature. Lloyd now works in the solar energy sector.

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