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Sustainable Smartphones: Galaxy S4 vs. Fairphone

Words by 3p Contributor

By Emil Dimantchev

Ever since Apple first shipped the iPhone in 2007, smartphone manufacturers have ignored the opportunity to make a product for green consumers. This has caused efforts to reduce smartphones’ planetary impact to proceed at a snail's pace, until now. Entering the market are two new models that are trying to take advantage of the market niche for sustainable products. Fairphone will ship its first smartphone in Europe this fall, while the recently released Samsung Galaxy S4 achieved a certification for sustainability developed by TCO Development. But how do Fairphone and TCO approach sustainability, and which of the two does a better job?

The TCO standard and Fairphone's work so far have focused on specific impact areas. A more holistic approach to sustainability would be to quantify, estimate and minimize the full life-cycle impact of their products. Fairphone is currently working on performing a life cycle assessment. But for now, consumers are left to make purchasing decisions based on how well a manufacturer addresses a particular sustainability issue. After reviewing the criteria of TCO’s certificate and Fairphone’s website, I found they address three main issues related to smartphone manufacturing – conflict minerals and labor rights, hazardous materials, and e-waste. Let's compare the Fairphone and the TCO standard along these three impact areas.

Conflict minerals and working conditions

Smartphones contain four conflict minerals – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold – whose extraction has been fueling violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (for a quick reference, see this video by Enough project). Protecting the rights of workers along the supply chain is another area for manufacturers to exercise social responsibility.

Fairphone uses conflict-free certified tin and tantalum from the Congo, and is working on sourcing conflict-free certified gold and tungsten. Fairphone also supports and “actively promotes” standards for working conditions laid out in the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions. It recently contracted a third-party social assessment organization to review their production plant in China.

In comparison, the TCO standard places no specific requirements on the supply chain of smartphone producers, it only asks that “reasonable effort be made to ensure that social responsibility standards are being met by suppliers and subcontractors.” There is no guarantee the minerals in TCO certified phones are conflict-free. When it comes to a producer’s own facilities, TCO has strict requirements, mandating that all factories abide by the ILO conventions.

Hazardous materials

Flame retardants, plastics, and other materials in smartphones have been linked to health hazards, air pollution and water contamination (Annie Leonard’s video Story of Electronics reviews some of these issues).

Fairphone says its smartphone will be compliant with existing European regulations. In the EU, the RoHS directive reduces the use of hazardous materials such as mercury, lead, and cadmium to limits deemed safe by the EU. Flame retardants and phthalates (an ingredient in some plastics that could pose a number of health risks) are regulated under the REACH directive, which mandates assessments of hazardous chemicals and requires producers to demonstrate their ability to control the potential harms to human health. The commonly used PVC however is not regulated by EU legislation and Fairphone does not prohibit its use throughout the supply chain.

The TCO standard adopts the rules of the European legislation, but also goes further in some areas. It bans the use of mercury and phthalates altogether. In the EU, there are concerns that the legislation does not go far enough regarding phthalates, which prompted the Danish government to defy EU law and fully ban their use. TCO also seems to significantly reduce the use of PVC by prohibiting its use in all parts weighing more than 5 grams.

Disposal and E-waste

Here, Fairphone again falls under the purview of EU legislation, which requires that electronic stores implement take-back programs and use safe e-waste recycling. In addition, the company claims it will donate 3 euros for every phone sold towards setting up safe e-waste recycling facilities in countries where such do not exist. Fairphone’s goal is to eventually source materials from recycled phones by partnering with Closing the Loop.

The TCO standard mandates that take-back programs be implemented in at least one market where the phone is sold and where such programs do not already exist. Recycling must follow “environmentally acceptable methods” but there are no specific requirements for what these methods must be.


Both the Galaxy S4 and the Fairphone reflect progress towards more sustainable smartphone manufacturing. While the S4 is somewhat more progressive when it comes to hazardous materials, the Fairphone is pioneering the use of conflict-free minerals and helping develop safe recycling. Thus, making a choice between the two products will largely depend on what sustainability issues the consumer prioritizes. It is apparent, however, that the Fairphone goes further to make a positive impact by redefining the status quo in smartphone production rather than making only incremental improvements. As an early adopter of conflict-free sourcing initiatives, the Fairphone is helping develop a more ethical supply chain, which could in the future begin to be used for other smartphones as well. As a pioneer in this area, the Fairphone receives my vote for a more responsible smartphone.

Emil Dimantchev is a carbon market analyst at Thomson Reuters Point Carbon. The views expressed in this article are his own, unless stated otherwise. You can follow Emil here: https://twitter.com/EDimantchev

[Image credit: Fairphone]

ed note: The second paragraph of this article has been updated to reflect Fairphone's ongoing work towards sustainability.

3p Contributor

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