Get the latest Startup news and information

How to choose ethical mobile phones for business

What are ethical mobile phones? Where can you buy them? And how could they impact your business?

Mobile phones play an essential role in modern business communication. Imagine trying to run your startup without one – not a pretty picture, is it?

According to a survey commissioned by Three in 2018 of 1,000 UK small businesses, 81% of those surveyed thought that the latest smartphones met most of their business requirements. 63% said that mobile phones were “very important” for their job, while 41% said they expected to become increasingly reliant on their mobiles in the next year.

But have you ever stopped to think about where these devices come from? How much do we really know about how mobile phones are sourced, and what goes into making them? And furthermore, just how sustainable are these practices?

With these questions in mind, our aim is to guide you through the process of choosing an ‘eco phone’, including examples of makes phones ethical and profiles of the most eco-friendly smartphone brands.

When the time comes to dispose of a mobile phone, we offer advice on the most sustainable options. And on top of that, we’ve included real-life insight from small business owners and experts in the field.

If you’re looking for a new business device and want to know what the most eco-friendly mobiles are, but also want to learn more about the topic and the options available, we can help you.

What is an ethical mobile phone?

With the rise of movements like conscious consumerism and ethical shopping, it seems fitting that people are growing increasingly interested in making sustainable choices as often as possible – and this includes mobile phones, too. But what is an ethical mobile phone, exactly?

Essentially, ethical mobile phones avoid using materials from conflict zones, are manufactured ethically, and aim to reduce waste. 

So how else are ethical mobiles different from their standard counterparts?

  • Sustainable materials and processes – cobalt, gold, and tin are three examples of minerals that are often used in mobile phones. Ethical mobile phones use sustainable processes for mining and manufacturing these products
  • Excluded materialsethical mobile phones typically avoid using PVC, mercury, and nickel, along with Brominated Flame Retardants (BFR) and radio frequency radiation (rFR). Overall, you can expect lower levels of emissions and radiation too 
  • Batteriesethical mobile phones are typically powered by removable batteries with longer lifespans
  • Recycling – ethical phones tend to have a big focus on recyclability, whether this refers to the materials used to make the device, using smaller printed guides, using repairable parts, or the amount and type of packaging used to store and sell the phone

When researching ethical mobile phones, you’re likely to come across the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’. This refers to the way in which many standard phones are designed to become out of date before they no longer work, such as through frequently releasing new models or software updates. 

Asad Hamir, founder at Klyk, describes ethical phones in the following way: “Truly ethical phones are less about purchasing the latest kit and more about making the most of what we have. Gone are the days of upgrading every year; our reliance on technology is only going to increase, and providers need to make products that are more reliable, stronger and more efficient.”

The founders at Raylo discuss ethical phones: “An ethical mobile is a device that is part of a circular user cycle. In other words, it has been used by its initial owner then refurbished for reuse for the next person. Taking an ethical approach ensures a device goes on to have a second, third, or even fourth life rather than be placed in the bin or left to languish in a drawer. 

“A phone that sits in a drawer is as good as one that sits in landfill if it ages beyond the point it is of any use to anyone and is eventually just binned. And it's important that sustainability is built into the fabric of a company's approach. That means having the right things in place to ensure its made easy for the customer to do the right thing with their device. At Raylo it’s a core part of our deliverable.”

How to choose sustainable mobile phones

If you’re interested in getting an ethical mobile phone, which features and functions should you look for? And what’s involved in the selection process?

The most sustainable option is to use the phone that you already have for as long as possible. However, when you do need to get a new device, what should you look out for?

  • Refurbished models – this means that less energy and fewer resources are required, as the device already exists (as opposed to choosing a new device that has to be made from scratch)
  • Repairable parts – replacement parts that can be easily accessed can help extend the lifetime of a device
  • Less priority on aesthetics – choosing an ethical phone sometimes means foregoing the sleekest, latest designs; instead, focus on a company’s sustainability policies and its environmental impact
  • Materials – seek out materials that are recyclable and conflict-free
  • Check policies – assess a company's commitment to sustainability by looking at its policies on supply chain management, as well as toxic and conflict minerals
  • Packaging – ethical mobile phones are likely to use minimal packaging, or avoid it altogether. Cases could be made of natural materials. Some brands will also reduce or eliminate the amount of paper used for the guides
  • Storage – opt for less internal storage, as this can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced while creating some devices

The founders at Raylo advise: “Business owners should consider buying refurbished phones or purchasing new phones through a company that has built a sustainable approach into the core of their business. 

“Beyond that it’s also worth looking at what else that company do to support sustainability – are they B Corp certified? Are they supporting initiatives that contribute to solving the problem?”

It’s also worth noting that it’s important to make the right decision from the very beginning – to find a phone that you’re happy with, so that you’re less likely to change it as frequently. Ask yourself: does the phone have all the features and functions you need for your business, both for now and for the long-term?

Once you’ve got a new mobile, be sure to take action to protect it so you can use it for as long as possible. For example:

  • Use screen and case protectors (with sustainably sourced materials)
  • Arrange insurance cover for repairs
  • Keep software updated
  • Use low energy chargers

Check out the Ifixit guide to smartphone repairability scores for more information and reviews.

Hamir says: “It’s time to champion better, more efficient use of tech by extending the lifecycle of phones. Empower people to keep their phones for another twelve months rather than succumbing to the urge to buy the latest shiny new kit – it’s a simple and painless way that we can all make a positive contribution to the environment. 

“If we extended the lives of all smartphones in the UK by just 1 year, it would save nearly 256,000 tonnes of CO2. Newer phones offer better functionality and better security and we do need technological advancement, but not everyone needs the latest and greatest.”

Environmentally friendly mobile phone brands

In this section, we’ve identified some of the most environmentally friendly mobile phone brands available.

Fairphone 3

Describing itself as “the phone that dares to care” and labelled with the message “change is in your hands”, the Fairphone 3 is the third generation of sustainable smartphones from Fairphone, an Amsterdam-based social enterprise and BCorp

Since 2010, the organisation has been championing a fairer electronics industry. It originally started out as an awareness campaign about conflict materials, which then led to the creation of a company in 2013, and the production of potentially the most ethical mobile phone. 

The company is committed to fairness throughout the process of making an ethical smartphone, including how the materials are sourced and recycled, along with improved working conditions and e-waste reduction programmes. For example, Fairphone is the first company to integrate Fairtrade gold into its supply chain. 

The Fairphone 3 is made from recyclable materials, and has a modular, repairable design. To make repairs to the device, only a single screwdriver is required, which is included when you buy the phone. Online help resources are also available. Plus, the phones are backed with a 2-year warranty.

Interestingly, the Fairphone 3 doesn’t come with a charger, earphones, or USB-C cable – the company figures most customers will already have these, as well as it wanting to reduce e-waste. If you do need these, though, then accessories are available to purchase separately.

The Fairphone 3 offers the following features:

  •  Android 9
  • Full-day battery life
  • 12MP camera
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 mobile platform
  • 64GB internal storage
  • 3,000mAh removable Li-on battery
  • 5.65 inch full HD display
  • Wireless connectivity – wifi, Bluetooth, NFC
  • Network – dual nano SIM, 4G

The Fairphone 3 costs €450 (including VAT). Business solutions are also available. 

Note that the Fairphone 3 is currently available to pre-order; shipping in November. 

There are still social and ethical issues surrounding mobile devices, and therefore room for considerable improvements across the mobile phone industry. Here, we highlight some of the ways the the main players in the market are making more environmentally friendly choices:

Apple 

Apple was commended for its positive policy on toxic chemicals, as well as the fact that its devices are PVC, BFR, and phthalate-free (according to the Ethical Consumer guide to mobile phones). 

Also, the Apple Trade In scheme offers credit for old devices that can be reused, and free recycling for those that can’t.

Hamir adds: “A phone that has a longer life and is made with recycled material is key. For example, Apple’s new iPhone Pro uses 100% recycled tin and rare earth elements, whilst Apple is committed to using 100% renewable energy during production. When it is time to upgrade, phones should be easily recyclable, or passed down for second-hand use so that fewer devices end up in landfill and components can be reused or sold on.”

Blackberry 

Blackberry has also been praised for its toxic chemical policies, and was also recognised for its PVC, BFR, and phthalate-free devices in the same Ethical Consumer guide. 

Blackberry also takes part in the CDP, a global not-for-profit organisation for companies to measure and share emissions and information about climate change. Blackberry has been sharing information about its greenhouse gas emissions since 2009. 

Nokia 

As well as smartphones, Nokia also makes feature phones, which are ideal for those who require more basic devices. These devices comes with fewer features, which means fewer resources are required to make them.

Plus, Nokia’s 2018 People and Planet report complies with the advanced level of the UN Global Compact, which is an initiative that involves businesses voluntarily committing to ten sustainability principles.  

BrandFeaturesBest for
Fairphone- Sustainable phone production processes
- Phone made from recycled materials
- E-waste reduction programme
- Repairable design
Sustainable device
Apple- Positive policy on toxic chemicals
- Devices are free from PVC, BFR and phthalate
- Trade In scheme
Recycling scheme
Blackberry- Takes part in CDP
- Shares information about its greenhouse gas emissions
Information sharing
Nokia- Feature phones available
- 2018 report compliant with the advanced level of the UN Global Compact
Smartphone alternatives

Interested in learning more about sustainable business practices? Read our guide on how to run a carbon neutral business.

Hamir continues: “All manufacturers publish environmental reports for devices, including details of the materials they use and their carbon footprint, so it’s worth using these to compare models before buying. Though business owners should also think carefully about whether they need to buy new. Refurbished phones are a great option as grade A refurbs offer the same high quality and work as new.”

“If you still want something brand new, then consider leasing which allows businesses to spread the cost of the hardware in the most tax efficient way whilst also ensuring the device is refurbished and re-used at the end of the lease rather than being chucked in a drawer or thrown away.”

Refurbished mobile phones

Another sustainable choice is to buy a refurbished mobile phone. Refurbished phones tend to be devices that were faulty and have been repaired, although the term can also refer to phones that were sent back during the returns period. 

Essentially, a refurbished phone (also known as a reconditioned phone) has been owned before. As it’s not brand new, it’s more environmentally friendly, as it means there’s less demand on the resources and materials necessary to make a new phone from scratch.

Although there may be some cosmetic damage (if this is the case, it should be clearly stated), refurbished mobiles go through checks and tests to ensure they work and are ready to be sold again. 

eco phones

Mobile phone recycling

The sustainability process doesn’t stop once you’ve opted to use an ethical device. After using your phone to its fullest, you’ll need to dispose of it sustainably. This often means recycling your mobile phone, as many of the materials can be recovered or used again.

According to Recycle Now, up to 80% of a phone can be recycled. Broken phones can also be recycled, as well as devices that are still working. Here are some top tips about how to recycle your mobile phone:

  • Remove your personal data from the device 
  • Pass it on for someone else to use, such as another team member
  • Donate it to charity
  • Sell it online to be recycled through mobile phone recycling sites

Recycling old devices helps to reduce energy demands, as well as limit the pollution created during the production process. Furthermore, some of the materials and minerals used in mobile phones, such as gold and silver, can be recovered and used in other industries.

Hamir comments: “The first priority is to establish if the device still has value. If it does, the best thing is to extract as much value from it as possible via recycling websites or even selling the devices on sites like Ebay. If this isn’t an option, then making sure a device is recycled responsibly through recycling centres which are dotted all over the UK is important; they can refurbish it or strip it for parts rather than dumping it in landfills.”

On the sustainable disposal of mobile phones, the founders at Raylo advise: “If a phone cannot be re-used by someone else than dispose of it properly by using R2 Responsible Recycling partners only. They will ensure traceability of what happens to the phone and all its parts. Those parts deemed as waste (beyond repair) will be sold only to downstream partners that commit to the same responsible recycling environment, removing harmful dumping of parts into landfill.”

When asked if there are any myths about ethical mobile phones they’d like bust, the founders at Raylo state: “The new devices being manufactured today are actually allowing us to extend the life of phones. It's possible to keep them in circulation for longer than ever before due to their increased robustness and improved technology. It’s a myth that you can't take an active approach to being more sustainable. Either by keeping your phone for longer or by obtaining it from a company that are committed to doing the right thing by it throughout its lifecycle.”

And any myths about ethical phones that Hamir would like to bust? “A zero-carbon world is simply not possible when it comes to technology due to the nature of the materials and manufacturing processes used. But, we can all work together so we all consume tech more responsibly and hold manufacturers to task on making tech that’s more responsible to the world.”

Summary

Businesses will always need to use mobile phones in their day-to-day operations, and in general, it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. But there is room for flexibility in which phones you choose, and how you use them – it’s possible to make more sustainable choices, and this includes using eco phones.

From assessing supply chain processes and the types of materials used, through to choosing mobile phone brands that put sustainability at the forefront, there are a number of ways to make your business mobiles more environmentally friendly. And once you’ve selected your new device, take steps to prolong the life of your current mobile by protecting it, and repairing issues whenever possible.  

Whether you opt for a completely ethical device like the Fairphone, or seek out mainstream providers who are doing their bit for the environment, the important thing is that such actions have the potential to not only benefit your business, but the planet too.