Mobile phones suffer from 'not-so-smart linear manufacturing' © 123RF
Mobile phones suffer from 'not-so-smart linear manufacturing' © 123RF

Call for new business model in face of 7bn smartphones

14 March 2017

More sustainable supply chains will play an essential part in making mobile phones greener, according to Greenpeace.

The campaign group is calling on manufacturers to introduce a new business model that considers the impact these devices have on the planet, as it emerges that 7.1bn phones have been produced over the past 10 years.

In a report From Smart to Senseless: The Global Impact of 10 Years of Smartphones, Greenpeace said the devices had seen tremendous innovation but supply chain decisions “continue to suffer from the same not-so-smart linear manufacturing model and short-term profit-driven perspective that have plagued the IT sector for years”.

Among the issues seen in the mobile phone supply chain are life-threatening conditions for miners extracting precious metals for the devices.

These often lead to armed conflict and environmental degradation in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Meanwhile, workers in components factories are often unknowingly exposed to hazardous chemicals, while the increasing complexity of devices means increased energy use in production.

And products are insufficiently recycled and materials insufficiently reused, which adds to waste generation.

According to the report more than 60 elements are used to make mobile phones including aluminium, cobalt and gold.

Plastic is another major material and while some larger devices contained recycled plastic this is an emerging practice.

Memory chips, graphics chips and CPUs are made of silicon, which requires intensive energy and water use in its production.

Of all major smartphone manufacturers only Apple has extended its commitment to be 100% renewable across its supply chain. It has signed two major contracts to use renewable energy in China.

Foxconn, a major Apple supplier, has pledged to install 400 megawatts of solar generation near its Zhengzhou iPhone assembly plant.

Additionally a few smartphone companies have begun to report greenhouse gas emissions associated with the manufacture of their devices, including those used by their suppliers.

Human impacts in the supply chain include Congo cobalt miners digging deep underground without maps or safety equipment, risking asphyxiation or being trapped.

South Korean factory workers have reported life-threatening illnesses as a result of exposure to hazardous chemicals in semiconductor factories.

Pollution associated with energy generation has an impact on human health that goes beyond employees directly involved in mobile phone production, the report stressed.

Among the recommendations to mobile phone producers is for brands to require suppliers to report greenhouse gas emissions and set renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction targets across their supply chains.

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