Fairphones Are Perfect for Consumers Tracking Their Carbon Footprint

That alone significantly reduces their carbon footprints by almost half.

Fairphone parts

CC Fairphone

Treehugger has long admired the Fairphone from afar, as it isn't sold in North America. Nonetheless, it got a Best of Green award. “There are a few companies that specialize in eco-friendly phones, but Fairphone stands out because the materials used are also ethically sourced, ensuring that the workers who make their devices are treated fairly throughout the supply chain,” wrote Robert Wells of Lifewire. “Considering that the company’s prices are comparable with other mainstream manufacturers, and the fact that you can do your own repairs, Fairphone is a clear winner.”

Fairphone has just released its 2020 impact report, and given that it was the year of the pandemic, the results are surprising. their sales were up 76% over the previous year, they sourced more materials sustainably, and their phones were kept in use longer.

Fairphone Data

It's the last point that caught my immediate attention. I recently spent a year monitoring my carbon footprint while trying to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle, trying to stay under the 2.5 tonne per capita target for 2030. The target for 2050 is far less, at 0.7 tonnes per capita.

One of the most important components of the footprint is the embodied carbon of the stuff we buy, or as I prefer to call it, the upfront carbon emissions (UCE) from the manufacture and delivery of the product. You then add that to the operating emissions from running the product, divide that by the expected life of the product, to get the average carbon footprint per day.

Iphone 11 Pro life cycle emissions
Iphone 11 Pro life cycle emissions.

The shocker for me was the size of the footprint of my collection of Apple stuff. I have a lot of it, that I justified by saying I use it constantly for work. Just my iPhone has a lifecycle carbon footprint of 80 kilograms, 86% of which is from production and transport and only 13% from use, based on a three-year lifespan. For the purposes of my spreadsheet, that's 73 grams of carbon per day. That doesn't sound like very much, about the same as a banana, but it adds up; if you are aiming for a 2050 carbon budget it is almost 4% of your annual allowance.

What popped out in the Fairphone report is that they are trying to figure out how to make their phones last a very long time, which drops those annual emissions significantly. Fairphone says much the same thing:

"Every year, 1.4 billion phones are sold worldwide, while we throw millions away after an average of just 2.7 years. Most phones aren't made to last or to be repaired, and long-term software support remains the exception...The majority of greenhouse gas emissions related to smartphones are caused during the production process. The independent experts at Fraunhofer IZM reported that using a smartphone for five to seven years (rather than the average of 2.7) can reduce a phone’s related CO2 emissions per year by a whopping 28-40%. That’s why we focus on device longevity, and empower our users to keep their phones for longer."
Fairphone in pieces
CC Fairphone

They design their phones to be modular easily repairable, and provide parts and software for 5 years after the launch of a phone, and have a target to keep their phones in their customers' pockets for an average of 4.5 years. This is not so easy, because it is not just about whether the phone works;

"Research shows that emotional, physical, and technical durability all play a role in smartphone longevity. Fairphone is doing its best to empower the user to keep their phone for at least 5 years. However, the final decision on how long a phone is kept is made by the user."

This is more complicated than it seems. Sixty years ago, Vance Packard explained in his book "The Waste Makers" that there are three different kinds of obsolescence that drove people to buy new products. I quote from my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle":

Obsolescence of function. In this situation, an existing product becomes outmoded when a product is introduced that performs the function better. It's why I replaced my iPhone 7 with an iPhone 11; I wanted a better camera. The Fairphone components can be upgraded, so you don't need to change the whole phone if one part of it becomes obsolete.

Obsolescence of quality. “Here, when it is planned, a product breaks down or wears out at a given time, usually not too distant.” Packard quotes a marketer in 1958: “Manufacturers have downgraded quality and upgraded complexity. The poor consumer is going crazy.” Fairphone has this one beat, given that when anything breaks down, it is relatively easy to fix.

Obsolescence of desirability. “In this situation, a product that is still sound in terms of quality or performance becomes “worn out” in our minds because a styling or other change makes it seem less desirable.”

Fairphone in hand
CC Fairphone

This is the toughest one, that emotional obsolescence. The phone may be functionally upgradeable in both hardware and software, but it is still a 5-year-old phone. But then a Fairphone is kind of counter-culture, not the shiniest phone on the block even when new. In our coverage of the Fairphone 3, we noted how a reviewer described it as boxy and utilitarian. "There are no two ways about it: the Fairphone 3 has a dated design. Big chunks of body at the top and bottom of the screen are reminiscent of smartphones from five years ago." 

The Fairphone might actually be an example of what has been called "conspicuous conservation, in which individuals seek status through displays of austerity amid growing concern about environmental protection." You want to be seen with a Fairphone, the older the better because it tells a story about you. This might be why sales were up so much during a pandemic when many people were rethinking how they live and how they spend.

For anyone who is tracking their carbon footprint–and I am not alone, there is a growing movement out there–half a banana's saving every day is significant. I would be conspicuously proud to show off a Fairphone if I could.

View Article Sources
  1. "Fairphone's Impact 2020." Fairphone, 2021.