CES 2013, the world’s largest congregation of gadget geeks and their objects of desire, has almost come to a close now. All the big name manufacturers were seen strutting around parading their quad-core chips, their shiny new ‘sleekbooks’ and flexing those OLED screens. If gadgets turn you on, as is the case with the geeks at tech2.com who’re following the event live through the night, this heady mix of silicon, plastic and glowing LEDs has been nothing short of a glowing, pulsating wet-dream played out in the Mecca of decadence, Las Vegas. Beneath all the high-tech wizardry on display lies an uncomfortable reality, that of increasing ecological and social conflict being fuelled by the world’s insatiable desire for gadgets. In my view, this demand should accelerate the need to overhaul supply chains and manufacturing processes so that the stresses on the environment, resources, humanity and the crucial intersection points are eliminated. That isn’t too much to ask of an industry that thrives on innovation, is it?
Make my smartphone green...
As a consumer, I’d like to tell these companies the kind of smartphone that I’d want to buy. I’m quite sure that they’ll be able to deliver anything in the technology front. What I am interested in is making sure that the phone I buy has a low carbon footprint and has no blood in its circuits. So, if you are listening, Samsung, LG, Apple, Nokia and others, here’s my wish-list for the perfect smartphone.
Greenhouse gas and energy
We don’t need to go into the effect of greenhouse gases on our climate and the impending ecological and humanitarian disasters that will be triggered because of global warming. For starters, I think that the smartphone company must disclose and set targets for greenhouse gas emissions. They must have a clean energy plan, i.e. they must have a plan in place to move to renewable sources within the next couple of decades. In addition to these, the company must also be an advocate for clean energy, where they influence their suppliers, clients and even their customers (click here for more info). This will ensure that the phone will have a drastically smaller carbon footprint even before it rolls out of the factory. The phone itself would have to adhere to the highest Energy Star standards and so a longer battery life and a hardware that makes the most efficient use of battery becomes critical (click here for more info).
Hazardous chemicals and materials used in the manufacturing of the phone pose a major threat to both the environment, by way of waste, and the workers assembling the phone. Most companies have stopped using or have committed to phase out dangerous substances like PVC and BFRs from their production. I’d like my phone to have none of those, please. And while you’re at it, please get rid of the antimony and beryllium too (click here for detailed info).
Coltan, a metallic ore found in Congo
Recycling and upgrades
Recycling older parts and materials from earlier phones would help reduce the load on dispensing all the waste that is generated. With hundreds of millions of phones sold across the world every year, the amount of electronic waste generated is colossal. The phone manufacturers must institute a comprehensive take-back policy so that they recycle bits that can be used and safely dispose off whatever that can’t be.
(Nokia Recycling Policy)
(Samsung Take back Policy)
The imminent problem of e-waste due to a global gadget craze
The materials that can be recycled from a phone include the plastic, glass and aluminium that form part of the body as well as circuit boards etc. Unfortunately, you cannot carry out piece-meal upgrades to your phone like you can do with your PC. However, screwing on parts together instead of gluing them makes repairs and upgrades easier. Removable battery is big plus too. Also, don’t treat me like the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs; give me a phone that won’t force me to change it in two years.
No conflict minerals
A lot of different minerals go into the production of smartphones and other gadgets. I don’t want any conflict minerals in my phone. So, please don’t get your minerals from Eastern Congo and other conflict zones, where millions of people have been killed in the bloody civil wars funded by the mining for these minerals. All that the companies need to do is audit their supply chains and ensure that no mineral from any conflict zones goes into the manufacture of their phones. It has been done with diamonds, so we know that this is possible.
Mining in conflict zones help fund the militias
I don’t want my phone to be made by underpaid labour working in deplorable conditions in the electronic zones of China, Vietnam or any other country; this also extends to the mining of minerals such as tin from conflict-free zones. Neither do I want children who should be in schools and colleges soldering my phone together. The big daddies, who are wowing everyone at CES right now, can exert pressure on their suppliers to make sure that this doesn’t happen. In fact, the margins on the smartphones are so high (58 percent in case of the iPhone for Apple) that they can easily pay the right price for labour instead of squeezing their contractors who in turn squeeze their labour.
Abysmal working and living conditions in factory run hostels
There you have it – a wish-list, which may sound a tad unconventional, for any of those high-tech companies who are ready to take it up. I realise that the standard response to all of my conditions would be that the cost of manufacturing the phone, and thus the final cost of the phone, would go up. While it is common knowledge that every major gadget maker is pulling in mind-numbing profits, I’ll still sweeten the deal. I’m ready to pay more – yes, you read that right – if all these conditions are met. Think of it as tax that I’m ready to pay to ensure that carrying a smartphone around doesn’t weigh on my conscience.