What Greener Design for Smartphones Could Do for the Earth
Right to Repair

What Greener Design for Smartphones Could Do for the Earth

Europe has new rules to increase the durability and repairability of household appliances. What’s next? Smartphones! A recent study suggests how their eco-friendliness could be improved.

We all want to enjoy the benefits of modern technology, but not at the planet’s expense. So how can we make tech more durable and repairable, so we don’t have to make so much of it? The EU has some ideas, as seen in the Ecodesign regulations for household appliances that went into effect on March 1.

Still, it’s too early to declare victory—you’re not reading this article with a washing machine or dishwasher, after all. The next crucial step towards a real Right to Repair in Europe is expanding Ecodesign principles into more categories. The biggest, most obvious target is smartphones.

Guy Disassembling a Smartphone
Ecodesign is an approach to designing a product with consideration for its environmental impact during its whole lifecycle. What could that look like for smartphones?

The Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration recently investigated through a preparatory Ecodesign study for smartphones why smartphones fail, how their weak points affect consumer behavior, and how their design could be improved. The study provides the European Commission with “a technical, environmental and economical analysis of smartphones, mobile phones and tablets in accordance with the European Ecodesign Directive and Energy Labelling Regulation.” And it suggests that adopting Ecodesign rules could lead to iFixit teardowns featuring more creative joy and fewer resigned sighs.

How to make phones more eco-friendly (fast): make them repairable and durable.

The study found that increased repairability would improve the longevity of a smartphone, and suggests a bundle of measures for regulators, or scoring bodies, to consider:

1. Fasten seatbelts, not phone batteries: A phone’s battery shouldn’t be fastened into a phone with joining techniques that require tools, heat, or chemicals for removal. In other words: glue. That points instead to stretch-release tapes, which are easy to remove—as long as you know how. The study claims that comprehensive repair information and spare parts need to be available, at least to professional repairers. Of course, we think most people are capable of removing batteries, but any improvement is worth noting.

iPhone 8 Stretch-Release Tapes
With a bit of patience and the right technique, stretch-release tapes are quite easy to deal with.

Another battery-life improvement is pre-installed battery management software. Such apps would help people keep track of battery performance and health, and guidance on how to maintain both. Wouldn’t that be nice? Imagine your phone suggested a sensible battery swap instead of an upgrade, or buying a used phone with far less worry.

2. Improve access to common breakpoints: If a battery isn’t glued down, but it takes all day to get it out, it’s not a real improvement. So the study suggests that accessing a weary battery, cracked screen, or back cover shouldn’t involve heavy glue or lots of extra repair steps. Reversible and reusable fasteners, for example, could save repair professionals time, plus make repairs more affordable and economic.

3. Make software stand the test of time: According to a recent Eurobarometer survey (PDF), 20% of users purchase a new device because software or applications stop working or go out of date. To help consumers stick with good, functioning hardware, software OS updates should be available for a minimum of 5 years, rather than the current upgrade-inspiring year or two of too many manufacturers. 

Why durable phones matter

Those measures could lead to higher smartphone purchase prices, but in the long term they save money. According to the study, holding onto your still-updated mid-range smartphone decreases the average total cost per year by €40 (or $47 USD), and by €80 ($95) for high-end smartphones. Anyone who isn’t into buying a new smartphone model every two years benefits from savings and a prolonged lifetime. And overall greenhouse gas emissions related to smartphones could be reduced by 30%, benefiting early-adopters and frequent upgraders alike. 

The study’s findings are not new to us, but they’re novel in one important way: they are a framework for political discussions and decision-makers in the European Union. They might become the blueprint for a global Right to Repair. And if the EU decides to make those measures mandatory, they could be a true game changer of the smartphone industry.

What’s more, they specifically point out that opening up repair beyond just technicians—to every individual who wants to pick up their tools—would have an even greater impact on global emissions. Combining lifetime-extending repair policies, reducing power consumption, and moving manufacture and shipping toward renewable energy use could halve emissions across the EU. If more phones—like, say, those from Samsung and Apple—built repairable models like Fairphone and Teracube, the impact could be truly world-altering. 

We’d be able to enjoy new technology with a bit less of the old guilt. That’s an ambitious future we can get behind.