In the Guide to Greener Electronics, Greenpeace rates seventeen consumer electronics companies with regard to sustainability. Fairphone, the company which strives for fair and sustainable smartphone production, received the best score with a B. Apple followed in second place with a B-. Retail giant Amazon and the Chinese smartphone manufacturers Oppo and Xiamo received a miserable F. The scores were based on three categories: raw materials consumption, energy consumption, and use of toxic chemicals.
Devices that are easy to repair
The best way to reduce the consumption of raw materials in the electronics industry is to increase the lifetime of devices and recycle the materials at the end of the life cycle. However, this is not the focus of most major players in the electronics industry. Instead, they spew out smartphones and tablets with an average lifetime of just two years. This short lifetime results from the fact that it is increasingly difficult to repair these devices. In cooperation with the repair website iFixit, Greenpeace investigated the ease of repair of popular devices. They found that with 70% of the 40 examined devices, replacing components such as batteries or screens is difficult or impossible. Fairphone is a welcome exception in this regard. The company was the first to market a modular phone with the aim of prolonging the lifetime. Along with enabling replacement of defective components, this allows upgrading of the camera or other components to avoid feature obsolescence. In addition, the modular design facilitates the recovery and reuse of scarce resources such as gold, tungsten and tantalum.
On the subject of reuse, in April 2017 Apple announced that it is aiming to achieve a closed-loop supply chain. This means that all raw materials are reused. That is the opposite of an open-loop or linear chain, in which the raw materials are extracted, used, and then end up on the scrap heap. For now this is just an aim, and the company did not say when it expects to reach this goal. Despite this promise, Apple was rated as mediocre in raw material consumption because the iPhones are increasingly difficult to repair. The company is also lobbying against legislation in the USA that would give owners the right to repair their devices.
Internet companies such as Google often have a green reputation because they strive to have their head offices and even their data centres run entirely on renewable energy. However, on the hardware side their energy consumption is often very grey. In the life cycle of IT devices, the energy consumption during the use phase is relatively low. Most of the energy consumption occurs in the production phase. Electronic devices are made and assembled in Asian countries that are often largely dependent on coal. Greenpeace therefore calls on companies to commit to making their entire supply chain sustainable, instead of just looking at their own direct consumption.
Finally, Greenpeace gives recommendations on what we can do as consumers to make the electronics industry more green:
- Choose sturdy devices that are easy to repair
- Do not replace devices that are still working
- Give preference to repair instead of replacement
- When a device is truly defective, make sure it is recycled
- Let electronics companies know that you want sustainable devices
Image: Scorecard of 17 consumer electronics companies, from the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics 2017.