Daily Footprint, #9 – Cell Phone (ethical mobile phones)

Now that you’ve made your coffee it might be time to turn on your phone. I know that most people have limited time to research their purchasing decisions, so I wanted take a fairly complex decision and see how close I could get to a decision in one day. I would also like to ask you for your opinions, so please add comments to list a phone that you think is a good (or bad) choice from a social and environmental perspective.

Ratings from Ethical Consumerism Guides

A reasonable place to start is to look at existing ethical consumerism guides and see how different phones rank. The figure below compares phone rankings from Ethical Consumer, The Good Shopping Guide and Australia’s Shop Ethical. There is some agreement, for example Fairphone tops all three lists and they all follow the trend of:

Fairphone > LG > iPhone > Samsung

(with the slight exception the Australian guide ranks iPhones and LG equally). So the guides can be useful but have drawbacks:

  • They vary quite a bit on individual ratings (e.g., Huawei, HTC, and Motorola) highlighting the fact that these guides are often not in good agreement.
  • They don’t consider the difference between individual models within each range or brands that are more popular outside the Western world (e.g., Vivo and Oppo).
  • It’s also important to consider how up to date the guides are – Some companies (e.g., Apple) have come under a lot of scrutiny for things like materials and labor, and may have improved in the last few years.

(They are also some of the reasons why I think it’s important to have user-generated green star reviews.)

Phone ratings from three sites
Ranking of phone companies for social and environmental impact by Ethical Consumer (left). The Good Shopping Guide (middle) and Shop Ethical (right).


So I think it’s worth taking a look at Fairphone first, since they appear to be raising the bar on ethical phones. Their phone is designed for European networks – the Fairphone 2 will also work in the U.S. and other parts of the world but will probably be limited to the 3G network outside of Europe.

If you want to read a somewhat critical review of the Fairphone you can check out this one where it gets 6/10. It’s understandable that reviewers may find it hard to balance functionality with ethics and come up with one appropriate rating. That’s why two separate ratings makes more sense – a mediocre score for Quality and Value and a high score for Social and Environmental Impact (green stars). In that case, the ratings would be more helpful to a potential buyer who doesn’t absolutely need the best specs but who wants to support a move away from conflict metals and poor working conditions.

Here are a few ways in which they Fairphone are trying to change the phone industry:

  • Longevity and Recyclability. Their aim is to make the phone last for 5 years by making the hardware as accessible and modular as possible. Ifixit gives the Fairphone 2 top score for repairability.
  • Working Conditions. For example, ‘Fair Trade Pilot Center’ in China, where the connectors for Fairphone 2 are being produced.
  • Material sourcing. Although they use many standard components (made by others) Fairphone did launch a pilot program to use Fairtrade certified gold in their circuit boards. The Fairtrade certification covers not just workers but also environmental impact (control of mercury use and prohibition of cyanide leaching from tailings) and broader issues such as indigenous land rights and involvement of armed groups.

Other Phones – Repairability

Putting time into learning about Fairphone has helped to point me in the direction of issues to look for in other phones, for example the “repairability” scores on IFixIt. Some LG phones get high scores here, followed by the Google Pixel and iPhones, while Samsung has moved away from modularity – the popular Samsung Galaxy S7 is close to the bottom of the list:

Replacing the screen or battery without damaging other components is very difficult and requires special tools.

Here are a few other issues I looked at:

Software (OS) upgrades.

There are often simple issues that may help to make your decision that only take a few minutes to research. For example, if an operating system upgrade is not forthcoming then your phone is likely to have a shorter lifespan. A friend with a Samsung phone (Note 4) was frustrated by the fact that they would no longer release Android updates, despite her phone being less than 2 year old. ComputerWorld provide a ranking of a few phone companies based on timing and communication of Android upgrades.

Google ranks first, followed by HTC and LG, while Samsung, Motorola and BlackBerry receive F grades.

Conflict Minerals

It’s important to be aware of conflict minerals when considering a phone. I thought it would be interesting to see how phone companies respond to the recent spotlight on cobalt (a major component of lithium-ion batteries in phones and many electric cars) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC is very rich in natural resources, particularly minerals, but it’s also one of the world’s poorest countries – malnutrition affects around two thirds of the population.

Amnesty International conducted a large investigation into this and published a report in Jan 2016. You can read the report to learn about the Huayou Cobalt company and their connection to the Chinese and DRC governments, as well as details on the plights of the cobalt miners (including 40,000 children). They asked phone (and car) companies to respond on how much they knew about their cobalt supply chain, and whether it came from Huayou Cobalt. Of the answers received, I thought that Apple, Microsoft, and LG were the most upfront about admitting that there was a problem and that they intended to do something about it – but they are still at fault. Others such as Samsung and Huawei were more evasive and denied connection, even though Amnesty had tracked paperwork to them, suggesting that they may be less likely to make improvements.

It’s interesting to look at Apple’s positions on the Amnesty’s potential supply chain chart below. Apple’s reporting on other conflict minerals is pretty good but they are buying cobalt components from so many suppliers, including Samsung and LG Chem, that it’s hard to imagine that they can do better than the companies supplying them unless they change things radically. Google weren’t approached and in their 2015 conflict minerals report they don’t mention cobalt.

Cobalt - Amnesty report
Proposed cobalt supply chain in the DRC from Huayou Cobalt to major phone companies. Source: Amnesty International, 2016.

The best solution is not necessarily to pull out of the DRC but to start by cutting their relationship with Huayou Cobalt and work on developing more equitable and military-free supply partnerships that benefit the people. The Fairphone pilot program on Fairtrade gold could serve as a model.


I looked at the phone companies from a few other angles but this post is getting long so I’ll wrap it up and provide an update later with hopefully a new phone review. Obviously the Fairphone is an option to consider here. It’s a more attractive choice in Europe where it’s compatible with the faster 4G networks. I started out with an idea that Samsung was a pretty progressive company but now they are very low on my list of candidates. I have to also ding them for their massive exploding-phone recalls; inadequate quality assurance can have a huge environmental impact – imagine the footprint of all of those wasted phones. I’m warming more to LG, a company that I wouldn’t have considered that much before.

I’d like to hear your opinions – best phone from a social and environmental perspective? My next post will take a look at mobile network operators.

Update: I’ve written a Green Stars review of an LG phone – discussed in this post.

17 thoughts on “Daily Footprint, #9 – Cell Phone (ethical mobile phones)

      1. Oh, good to hear! You have good network coverage? I’d heard that it may be still using 3G speeds in the US – is it pretty usable for email, web, etc.?

        1. Pity that it’s AT&T – they weren’t my favorite when I looked at network providers. But at least the phone is available..
          I have an LG phone (which I’m pretty happy with) but will consider Fairphone next time for sure. Hopefully the industry will have improved by then.

  1. This is fascinating and actually encouraging. I had to accept a while ago that my phone was basically made by workers in terrible conditions with components mined by slaves but perhaps not…

  2. Hey Claire. I know what you mean – phones seem like one of those products where it’s hard to go right. But it does seem that some are better than others so it’s often worth doing a little research to see how the brand you’re thinking of buying ranks compared to others.

  3. I love your attention to detail and thanks a lot for finding my attempt at allegory dragging on as usual.

  4. Two concerns – Phones made in China. Especially since I know they can afford to make them in a more ethical place. And two, radiation. In my research I’ve discovered that some phones emit less than others; the best, lowest emitter, network is CDMA. Which is problematic, as it would appear that all of the carriers are switching over to GSM. Not surprising, as health and environment are not their priorities.

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