Is the UK's First Green Cell Phone Rating System Bending the Rules?


Photo via KhE via Flickr Creative Commons
O2, a communications company in the United Kingdom, has just launched the country's first green cell phone ranking system -- something of which Apple did not want the iPhone to be part. But Greener Computing points out highly relevant and controversial issue with the green ranking system. Smart phones typically use more energy and more materials than standard cell phones, which would be big minuses in a ranking system that grades phones based on energy efficiency, low embodied energy, and minimization of materials used in manufacturing. So O2 added in another factor that gives smart phones a big leg up over standard phones -- functionality. The argument is that because a smart phone can take over for multiple other gadgets, they're therefore greener. A valid point, but good enough to call them green over another standard cell phone?Greener Computing writes:

Speaking to BusinessGreen.com, James Taplin from Forum for the Future, which produced the rating scheme for O2, admitted that alongside criteria covering the corporate responsibility of the manufacturer, raw materials and manufacturing processes, toxic substances, packaging and logistics, and environmental impacts during the use and disposal of the phone, the organisation introduced criteria based on the functionality of the device.

Taplin said judging the environmental credentials of a phone based on its functionality was likely to prove controversial, and admitted that the criteria had been introduced because it did not want smart phones to "all come out at the bottom" of the ratings.

The key question for green consumers is whether measuring a device's environmental credentials based on its functionality rather than its physical impact is justified.

The problem is obvious: Will the consumer actually stop buying single-function gadgets like digital cameras, gps navigators, alarm clocks, and so on because their one smart phone can do it all? Will they keep their smart phone for longer than the average 18 months of ownership and maintain it for its useful life, which is usually closer to five years? If the answer is no to either of these questions, then no, functionality is not a relevant factor to the environmental impact of a device like a cell phone.

This is not to minimize the importance of functionality when analyzing the impact of electronics. As we showed when looking at how much energy a gadget minimalist could save, if one or two devices can accomplish all your tasks rather than a dozen, then those few devices are considered pretty darn green over single-function devices.

But it is up to the user to make it so...not the manufacturer. And the green ranking system by O2 is ranking phones based on what the manufacturer is doing (adding more functions) rather than on what the consumer is doing (using those functions). This makes the inclusion of functionality as a factor highly debatable. Understandable, yes, but still debatable.

Because it's up to the user to make full use of the functionality of a smart phone and decide to not buy other devices nor replace their phones every time they renew their contract with their carrier, it seems that O2 is giving points to phones that don't earn them on their own.

However, as Greener Computing points out, "O2 and Forum for the Future insist that they have developed a balanced rating system with a good mix of different devices among those awarded high marks. They also point out that the rating system gives room for all manufacturers to improve and that if it wants to attract customers to greener phones they need to have a good range of differing devices to select from."

Is a ranking system with a questionable point system better than no green ranking system at all? Is O2's system even all that questionable for most consumers who are moving toward smart phones anyway, regardless of their green credentials? Could it be molded to become not just a ranking system but also an educational tool for consumers who need to learn about how their actions increase or decrease the environmental footprint of a device?

If anything, O2's ranking system illustrates how important both manufacturer and consumer actions are for making a device live up to its greenest potential.

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Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Electronics | Gadgets