As the holiday season approaches, how many of us are planning to upgrade our smartphones? With increasingly lackluster annual smartphone launches and the promise of 5G pushed ever-further away, the prospect of buying a new phone feels distant for many consumers.
Americans were already waiting an average of three years to upgrade their phones before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Engadget, and data from the Consumer Technology Association forecasts a decrease of 15% in smartphone sales between 2019 and 2020. Consumers are increasingly rejecting smartphone manufacturer’s incumbent business model of continuous repair and planned obsolescence.
The alternative may lie in a concept previously relegated to the dustbins of tech history: the modular smartphone. An economic downturn coupled with greater prioritization of environmental impact is seeing growing consumer interest in a new generation of smartphones that are repairable, last longer, and carry a lower carbon footprint.
Sustainable consumption has become imperative, with 70% of North American consumers deeming it important for brands to be environmentally friendly. Even the great facilitator of consumption Amazon
Among consumer technology, smartphones far and away have the most damaging environmental impact, largely due to their high-emission production processes. The amount of energy it takes to create a single component of a smartphone – often manufactured in China where coal dominates the energy mix – exceeds the energy consumption of the entire device during its expected lifespan. Moreover, the components themselves are made of “conflict minerals”: rare and valuable elements whose mining is not only harmful to the environment but has created and sustained intense conflict in several Central African countries.
Smartphones are also incredibly difficult to recycle and do little to offset the harms of production. E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, according to the World Economic Forum, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 25% of all electronic waste is collected for recycling. Considering Americans dispose of more than 130 million smartphones each year, this is an unfathomable amount of waste reaching landfills.
Something has to give. Enter the (new) modular phone.
The Old Modular
The modular smartphone – a standard core phone with plug-and-play expandable modules that extend capabilities and support repair and maintenance – is hardly a novel concept. From Google’s
There were two glaring flaws in early modular phone concepts. Most were designed for enthusiasts who wanted to tinker with everything from the motherboard to adding bespoke features like an external pillbox. The average consumer, however, expected devices to start with all the basic capabilities you need in a smartphone, with plug-in peripherals for additions like extra battery life or speakers. Cost savings were a mirage, too, with the electronic infrastructure required for plug-in-ready devices adding significant cost, weight, and heft.
But times – and technology – have changed.
The New Modular
A new generation of modular smartphones is gaining ground in the market with a focus on practicality and sustainability. Rather than targeting the maker community, these phones are approachable and convenient for the average consumer and put an emphasis on reduced environmental impact, previously not a priority for modular phones.
Fairphone is a small but growing company at the forefront of what it means to be a sustainable electronics manufacturing company, advocating for workers’ rights across its supply chain and taking great pains to source its raw materials responsibly. Their modular Android design lasts as long as five years and allows owners to fix, maintain, and upgrade the device easily. The Fairphone not only boasts a perfect repairability score from iFixit, but is also the only Fairtrade smartphone, and only smartphone to score a passing grade by Ethical Consumer.
The Teracube is another, far more sustainable than average, Android 10 device. A finalist for Engadget’s Best of CES 2020, the Teracube boasts end-user-replaceable batteries (no glue used), a fully biodegradable case, and an impressive four-year warranty. Consider it a device with the specs of a high-end phone from just 18 months ago, running the latest software, for only $300.
Toward Planned Endurance
Will modular phones make a comeback? Their challenge lies in working against the prevailing business model of planned obsolescence and expensive maintenance (despite dubious claims from Apple
The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated consumer sentiments toward more cost-effective, lasting, and sustainable technology. Addressing technological obsolescence and reducing the frequency of the repair and upgrade cycle is the most powerful approach companies could take to lower the ecological footprint of digital technology – and to remain relevant and compelling to shifting consumer attitudes.