Last week, TCO Development granted Samsung’s Galaxy S4 the organization’s first ever sustainability certification for smartphones. The certification is important for Samsung and the overall smartphone market for several reasons. First, as smartphones proliferate and accomplish everything from reducing usage of laptops to helping alleviate poverty in emerging markets, the world’s resources necessary to manufacture them, from rare earth metals to petroleum, will become more constrained and difficult to procure. Furthermore, consumers are becoming aware of the social cost resulting from their assembly, as last year’s Apple-Foxconn saga clearly demonstrated.
And for Korea, the Galaxy’s S4 certification shows the country’s leading manufacturers have not only turned this tiny Asian company into a technology powerhouse, but a compelling sustainability laboratory. But will consumers really care, or even notice?
What was interesting about this announcement is while Samsung’s corporate site in Korea posted the news, the company’s mobile site made no mention of this milestone. So this announcement is more of a shot in the arm for TCO as it attempts to broaden its sustainability standards’ reach. Samsung, which is rapidly eclipsing Apple as the market leader (and not just in the Galaxy S4 vs iPhone 5 race), has not shown any evidence it is ready to embrace and own up to the fact that its popular phone scores fairly high as a responsibly-and sustainably-designed mobile device.
So what is a sustainable smartphone anyway? TCO surveys companies on a bevy of parameters, from hazardous materials to its eventual recycling potential and even visual ergonomics. Companies are also queried as to whether their smartphones’ surfaces release nickel, an allergen, as well as whether the company provides a headset. To that end, TCO lauded Samsung for manufacturing the S4 without the use of hazardous materials including mercury and beryllium, as well as its overall design--and, of course, the efficiency of its power recharger.
Nevertheless, despite their rapid adoption, a focus on sustainability is still missing from the smartphone market. Go to any sustainability-themed event or conference, for example, and you will see iPhones everywhere despite all of last year’s controversy involving Apple (full disclosure: 3p’s staff and I mostly use the iPhone). Consumers are still smitten with their performance and caught up in the technology race between Apple, Samsung and other providers; therefore, for the immediate future at least, do not expect TCO to pick up much traction.
Yet, this is where Samsung can show some leadership and egg on Apple, Motorola and other manufacturers to get their act together and work on improving their phones, while mitigating their effect on society and the environment. It is not that consumers do not care--they are just not educated. And here is where Samsung could find an opening and pull away from the rest of the pack if they counsel consumers on the benefits of purchasing the best possible smartphone that leaves behind the smallest social and environmental impacts.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Leon Kaye]
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.