Given how ubiquitous these everyday devices are, the title of this book is a fair question and one that should be asked more often: How Green is Your Smartphone?
News stories crop up regularly about e-waste, the carbon footprints of cloud computing, or the human and environmental cost of mining. But how much do we actually know about the phones that we use dozens of times every day?
The answer has two parts. There is the cost of making a smartphone, and then of using it. “It starts its life with a huge negative impact on the environment, punching above its weight in environmental harms relative to other devices, but makes up for this in low overall electricity consumption during its lifespan.”
By some distance, the biggest environmental impact of a smartphone is the embedded costs of making it. This is why Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller hammer home the message that “the greenest smartphone is the one you already own.” Take good care of your phone. Make it last as long as you can. Resist the pressure to upgrade. Choose a handset that can be opened and repaired, with a battery or other components that can be replaced. The gold standard is the modular Fairphone (of which I’m a satisfied customer myself), which is the only smartphone to ever score a perfect ten for repairability from iFixit.
When it comes to using a smartphone, the news is rather better. “In terms of its carbon footprint, your smartphone is among the greenest electronic devices out there.” The energy use, including running the networks, is relatively modest. And if you’re checking your emails or streaming a programme on a phone, it’s replacing activity which would otherwise be on a computer or a TV. Larger devices use more energy, and in some ways smartphones have reduced energy use.
The ethical concerns around smartphones aren’t just about the environment and carbon emissions of course. The book gives itself a generous interpretation of the title and also looks at labour exploitation, the health impacts and psychological implications of phone use. In fact, it’s more about the health aspects of smartphones than it is about the environment.
How Green is Your Smartphone has three chapters. The one the answers the titular question is in the middle, sandwiched between a chapter on radiofrequency radiation, and one on how the industry dodges environmental questions. I found these other chapters rather unsatisfying. The science doesn’t seem very conclusive on questions such as the link between phone radiation and cancer. So when the book later draws parallels between fossil fuel companies funding climate denial, and phone companies glossing over health concerns, I’m not convinced that they’re that similar.
On the other hand, the authors do point how many unresolved questions there still are about the long term health effects of smartphones. And almost nobody follows or even knows about the official advice is to hold your phone away from your ear, myself included, which kind of proves the authors’ point about how complacent we have been about the effects of smartphones.
Ultimately, I found How Green is Your Smartphone a slightly strange book, in that the title and blurb don’t really match the content. This may have been a publishing decision, taken because people aren’t as interested in the health and psychology of phones or the corporate misbehaviour of phone companies. If so, the publishers will have ironically proved the author’s point about this being an unwelcome conversation.