young adults sitting in a row using smartphones

Although many environmentally concerned people consider the emissions related to their homes, cars, and food, what about the sustainability of your smartphone? The world is getting smaller than ever as people become more connected.

The vast majority of Americans own a mobile phone and most have smartphones. From 2011 to 2018, smartphone ownership went from 35 percent of the population to 77 percent, according to Pew Research Center.

Many people replace their cell phones every year or two, and many cell phone plans encourage it. Some phones are recycled while the device still works. Because some people replace their phones so frequently, it is the manufacturing of the cell phone and not so much its use that causes most of the environmental damage. Energy is needed in the factory and to mine the needed materials, including rare-earth metals like yttrium and lanthanium.

Unfortunately, smartphones are notoriously difficult to repair. It is not even possible for the owner to replace the battery on many models, despite battery failure often being the cause of the premature demise of a phone. One positive development is that more smartphones are waterproof, with Sony and Samsung leading the way.

The bad news is that glue is typically used to keep water out, which makes it more difficult to pry waterproof phones open to make repairs. Many models do not have a service manual or replacement parts available. It also makes it more difficult and time-consuming to recycle components at the end of life.

“I call it design anorexia — making products thinner at all costs,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a global community dedicated to helping people fix things. “It’s very possible to design a waterproof, compact, modern phone that is repairable. But it takes design intent. We’re not seeing the effort put in by manufacturers.”

Rating Criteria

Most smartphone reviews focus on the user experience. Although performance is very important, in this guide for sustainable smartphones, let’s also consider:

  • Is it relatively easy and inexpensive to repair a given smartphone?
  • Can the battery be replaced?
  • Is there manufacturer responsibility for the device at the end of its useful life?
  • Does the manufacturer use renewable energy?
  • Are there hazardous chemicals in the phone?

Which Are the Greenest Smartphones?

With those criteria in mind, which are the most sustainable smartphones on the market? Unfortunately, we didn’t find that many models that really impressed us.

Refurbished Phone

Because so much of the carbon footprint associated with a phone is the result of how it is manufactured, the most sustainable phones on the market are used ones. Passing along a phone reduces its carbon impact. Many people replace their smartphone within 18 months, and many of these phones still have a lot of life left in them. eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook are good sources for used or refurbished phones.

Keep in mind that refurbished phones have been through a professional reconditioning process which involves checking for defects and damage. They may even come with a warranty. When buying a refurbished phone, buy one from a reputable company with a track record for selling reliable devices and providing excellent customer service. If you do buy a used (not refurbished) phone, be especially diligent to inspect it and ensure that it is running properly. This can be problematic when buying items online.

In many cases, it is possible to get refurbished versions of the latest models. Also, keep in mind that the latest smartphones are not necessarily the most advanced or desirable. Look up the iFixit Repairability Score before buying a new phone to know if you can make some simple repairs yourself.

Subscription Phones

The next wave of mobile phones may be leased, not sold. Many manufacturers and wireless carriers now offer annual or biannual upgrade programs for a fixed monthly payment. These phone makers and wireless carriers are moving to subscription models that should result in higher recovery rates of phones, but be aware of the monthly cost of the phone-plus-service when agreeing to join these programs.

Like leasing a car, these upgrade programs may be inexpensive or high-priced depending on what features and services the phone provides. In fact, hardware and software bundles — such as receiving Netflix or Pandora service along with a phone — are leading to a new consumer choice that may feel simpler but carries many carbon implications. When considering a subscription phone, look at these issues:

  • Does the phone maker responsibly recycle or refurbish the phone after the lease is complete?
  • Does the carrier rely on renewable energy or, at least, are they moving to greater use of renewable energy?
  • What is the carbon footprint of the services bundled with the phone?

These are issues that we’ll dig into further in the future. Focusing on the choice of phones available today, here are the most sustainable choices available.

Fairphone 2

The leader of the pack is European, the Fairphone 2 is fundamentally designed differently than other phones and costs only US$460. It features a long-lasting, modular design, and replacement parts and repair tutorials are readily available. In fact, it is the only smartphone to receive a 10/10 reparability score from iFixit. Just one small screwdriver is needed to make repairs, unlike other phones that require proprietary tools.

The company also has a commitment to fair working conditions and sourcing responsible materials. Their website states, “We work with initiatives that source conflict-free tin, tungsten and tantalum, and Fairtrade gold. We want to support communities, not conflict.” The device is also made from recycled plastic and aluminum.

The downside — for those of us who don’t live in Europe — is that the phone is optimized for European cellular networks. Here is Fairphone’s explanation about how to use the device outside Europe.

iPhone 8

With an iFixit repairability score of 6/10, the phone is moderately impressive, and the iPhone XR, X and XS received the same score. Some parts on these phones can be fairly easily replaced such as the battery and display, but Apple does use some uncommon screws that make some repairs difficult.

The iPhone 8 is water and dust resistant to IP67, which makes it resistant to splashes and some submersion but not the top level of protection.

According to Apple’s environmental report for this model, the iPhone 8 is free of many restricted substances, such as PVC and BFR and some devices qualify for the Apple GiveBack program and recycling. Greenpeace has been rating electronics companies for over a decade and Apple’s score recently improved dramatically. Most impressive is its commitment to renewable energy and mitigating climate change. In Greenpeace’s 2017 company report card, Apple also scored 52 out of 100 by the Good Shopping Guide’s Ethical Rating and got a low rating for human rights and political donations.

iPhone XR

Much of what is true for the iPhone 8 applies to the iPhone XR, X, and XS. The XR did phone received slightly lower reviews from Consumer Reports than the iPhone 8. The packaging seems pretty impressive and contains almost no plastic. This is because it either contains recycled content, bamboo, waste sugarcane or is from a responsibly managed forest.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 3

This phone gets mixed reviews from a sustainability standpoint. The good news is that it got a score of 8 out of 10 for repairability from iFixit. The bad news is that Xiaomi scored an F from Greenpeace in all three rating categories: energy, resource consumption, and chemicals. If you do choose this phone, consider a used model to help mitigate the environmental impact of manufacturing the phone.

Our Findings

Unfortunately, very few cell phones on the market are sustainable. This article will be updated as more impressive models are released.

One of the best ways to change this is to voice your concern to cell phone manufacturers for more sustainable products. Request smartphones that are made with fewer hazardous chemicals, manufactured in plants powered by renewable energy, and that contain recycled materials.

Comparison Chart

To download our printable sustainable smartphone comparison chart, click the image below.

Earth911 sustainable smartphone comparison chart

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.