"Standards of the past have pushed manufacturers toward more recycled plastics, fewer hazardous materials, smarter end-of-life management and better energy efficiency," he says. But these days, the power and influence of these companies mean that they can "effectively resist leadership standards." He believes that targets are now "too easy for manufacturers to achieve," making them meaningless. Greenpeace's Gary Cook agrees, saying the situation is "not as progressive as it once was."
Meanwhile, there's iFixit, which publishes a chart of smartphones ranked by their repairability. Unsurprisingly, Fairphone 2 tops the list, and sadly the rest of the top five is filled out with older devices, like Motorola's Droid Bionic and Atrix 4G (both 2011). The current run of flagship devices from from Google (6/10), Apple (6/10) and Samsung (4/10) demonstrate somewhat less commitment to repairability.
Schaffer points out that while many advances in sustainability have been made, new devices often feature "difficult to recycle batteries [and] non-upgradeable storage." More worryingly is the presence of those rare earth metals that "are virtually impossible to recover in the current electronics recycling infrastructure." One solution would be to push for increased repairability and better durability for the latest devices. But, as the Schaffer report says, manufacturers have "consistently opposed stronger reuse and repair criteria," although we couldn't possibly wonder why.
"Glue is the cheap, lazy way to make a thin device with a seamless exterior," explains iFixit's lead teardown engineer, Samantha Lionheart. Glue is the enemy of repairability, but it does help companies make slim, unibody and waterproof devices en masse. In addition, Lionheart says that "the advent of wireless charging" means "there are a lot of glass backs that can only really be attached with an adhesive." Lionheart cites the LG G5 as evidence that there are better ways to do things, since it uses a "stiffer battery case to enable easy removal and provide structural support." But, "ultimately, manufacturers don't often take repair or rework into consideration, sometimes to their massive detriment -- like the Note 7."
EPEAT, a green electronics standard based on the IEEE 1680 framework, helped supercharge environmental standards back in 2006. EPEAT grades consumer electronic products against 1680, awarding a bronze, silver and gold ranking. The regime includes mandates on recycled plastic, manufacturer recycling programs and a reduction on the use of hazardous materials. The latter category has helped drive down the use of poisonous substances like lead, cadmium and mercury in countless consumer devices.
But Schaffer's report is critical of EPEAT's leadership role, citing the moment when Apple released the 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina Display as its death-knell. The laptop shipped with a variety of non-upgradeable parts, a glued-in battery and a proprietary non-user-replaceable SSD. Despite this, the device was awarded gold certification, and in Schaffer's eyes "effectively gutted the modularity criteria in the standard."
Perhaps surprisingly, Nancy Gillis, CEO of the Green Electronics Council -- which administers the EPEAT label -- agrees that things need to change. She says the Schaffer report helped crystallize internal discussions over reform. Part of this is because EPEAT's success is bound up with IEEE 1680, giving its administrators less wiggle-room to make judgment calls.
Gillis, who took up her leadership position at the GEC in 2016 believes that the issue, right now, is with standards development itself. It can take the better part of a decade to produce a new standard, and it's a laborious process of negotiation between the industry, its regulators and relevant stakeholders. "Because these standards-development processes are taking four, five, six years," she explains that some smaller stakeholders "don't have the financial wherewithal to continue." Specifically, smaller IT companies, security experts and environmental advisors who lack the time and resources to remain involved. Gillis believes that this results in the standards' development becoming unbalanced in favor of larger manufacturers.
It seems that big manufacturers have carte blanche to define their devices as environmentally friendly. Not only do they set the bar, but they know just how to slide their products through without causing any controversy. But that may not be the situation forever. The GEC is pushing for a much faster standards-development process, one that will take no longer than 22 months. Crucially, however, the new standards will, for the first time, "address the environmental and social impact associated with that product category."
Other industries, from paper products (FSC) through to food (Fairtrade) have already adopted labeling schemes that inform consumers about making better choices. Each one can only be used if the company involved meets certain criteria concerning ethics, sustainability, minimum pricing and workers' rights. In Germany, there's even a general-purpose eco label (Der Blaue Engel), which covers any product deemed to be friendly to the environment.
"You have working conditions, you have environmental issues, you have problems with recycling," says Fairphone's Huhne, "it's very difficult for a single label to capture that." Greenpeace's Gary Cook is also sceptical about the need for labels, saying that "we don't have time to go through a process of 'let's create an eco label that says this product is climate-friendly." The GEC's Gillis disagrees saying that "complexity of the supply chain is challenging, but the complexity of addressing environmental aspects was challenging, too."
Right now, it's impossible to buy a smartphone you can be certain was produced entirely ethically. Any label on the packaging wouldn't stand a chance of explaining the litany of factors that go into its construction. The problem is bigger than one company, NGO or trade policy, and will require everyone's effort to make things better.
"Fairphone isn't 100 percent fair," says Fabian Huhne, "and we can't solve everything at the same time." But he's optimistic: "If the industry moves in [a more positive] direction, it's going to get a lot easier," but it requires "transparency and knowledge." Armed with that, hopefully consumers in the future can pressure the industry to get ever closer to the ideal.
The Green Electronics Council's Gillis feels that the biggest change comes from purchasers, and the bigger the purchasers, the more weight their voices have. It's why big business and institutional purchasers have a chance to take a leadership role here and push for better conditions. Your individual smartphone purchase may not make a dent in the industry, but you may be able to influence others. A mobile network, for instance, buys millions of devices each year, and certainly wouldn't want to be seen to condone sweatshop labor. Maybe it's worth making a couple of phone calls.