What Does “Green Cell Phone” Really Mean?

If I offered you a “green” cell phone for sale, what would you expect? Would you expect it to be made with recyclable or biodegradable thermoplastics? Would you expect it to come with a minimum of toxic heavy metals, or low-strength radio waves? What about the programs on it – would you expect the phone to tell you how to live a “greener” lifestyle?
Or would you think I was just schlocking another flip phone painted some ugly green color?

These are just some of the questions cell phone manufacturers are wrestling with, as they struggle to find a coherent response to consumer expectations around sustainability. And these questions aren’t unique just to the cell phone industry; companies in just about every sector worldwide are scrambling to redesign, re-manufacture, or simply re-brand their products in order to survive in an economy that suddenly values sustainability.
Not many people saw this coming, but now nearly everyone is taking a shot at bringing to market their own interpretation of a “green” cell phone. From a list that could go on and on (check out this article to read more about the trend), consider just these three examples:
* Motorola W233 Renew: It’s made of recycled plastic, has a “green” name and color, and Moto promises to offset its carbon footprint.
* Samsung Blue Earth: There’s a solar charger on the back, the housing is recycled plastic, it comes with a pedometer to measure avoided GHG emissions. And, it’s blue!
* Nokia N79 Eco: Comes in black or white with no charger (use your old one!), in smaller packaging, and includes a donation to the WWF.
What’s really interesting is just who the companies are marketing to with these models. Look a little closer at the specs, and you can start to tell who the target markets are. At one end of the spectrum we have Motorola, who has pulled out all the stops to make the greenest phone it can swing. The Renew is unabashedly green in color, and similarly bold about eschewing advanced functionality in exchange for an overt emphasis on green. This phone will surely impress the relatively small group of buyers whose choices are determined exclusively by a product’s green characteristics … and be ignored (or mocked?) by everyone else.
Samsung markets more to mainstream tastes by including features useful to the masses (solar charger and pedometer), and tries to avoid typecasting itself as too eco by going with blue housing instead of green. It’s a sexy looking phone, one that clearly wasn’t designed for the Birkenstocks crowd. Still, the pedometer app – which tells users how much CO2 they’ve saved by walking – is bound to please sustainability types. A product like this is a good example of how to speak to the green market, while still reeling in customers from the lighter-green center.
Nokia has the lightest eco touch here. There’s no green enamel, no natural ingredients, nothing overtly symbolic of an ecological mindset. In fact, it’s unlikely that people in the market for a green cell phone would notice it at all. Instead, it acts a little bit like a green Trojan horse for the mainstream. It looks and behaves just like a normal phone, but adds in a few eco customizations that address mainstream needs as well, like getting rid of an unnecessary charger and annoying extra packaging.
So what’s the bottom line? Like everyone else, cell phone companies are trying to figure out how to adapt to the green economy. Some are inventing new products that speak only to LOHAS consumers. These products may not garner big sales upfront, but they build great green credibility for a firm and help them to develop product features that can later be rolled out painlessly to the entire product line. Others are taking a middle of the road approach – trying to look hip and not “hippy green,” but still include real eco features. It’s a tough balance to strike, and Samsung looks to be surprisingly successful here. Finally, some firms are taking the stealth approach – trying to hide green features inside mainstream products. Most people agree that this will be where the market goes eventually, but in the short term, companies that take this approach may miss out on a green image boost, or on customers that are looking for a little green in their product choices.

Daniel is a Strategic Sustainability Consultant with expertise in sustainable technologies, systems, and management practices. He has worked on a wide range of sustainability consulting initiatives, from implementing basic efficiencies to planning the structural integration of sustainability into the core strategy of an enterprise. Much of his work has focused on quantifying the financial impact of sustainability, as well as addressing the challenges in communicating with and educating others about the benefits of sustainable management. Most recently, Daniel worked with Red Bull of North America to reduce costs through better fleet management, renewable energy, waste reduction, efficiencies, and strategic integration. He also works with the FairRidge Group to provide strategic sustainability consulting services to Fortune 500 companies. Daniel received an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wesleyan University, in Middletown, CT, and earned an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco.

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