/ Sustainability, Technology

Do the products you buy damage the environment?

Friends of the Earth campaigner dressed in smartphone costume

How much do you know about how the things you buy are made? In this guest post, Friends of the Earth’s Andy Atkins explains why smartphone manufacturers need to start making their products better.

It doesn’t say on the label that it takes 3,900 litres of water to produce a single t-shirt. And did you know that producing the estimated 454m smartphones sold worldwide each year uses an area of land twice the size of New York?

It’s important that we all think about our own impact on the world, but an overwhelming amount of product information probably isn’t the best way to help with this. As shoppers, most of us just want to trust that manufacturers protect people and the planet in the process of creating the products we buy.

The tin solder in every mobile

Of course, everything we buy and use has an impact. Sometimes a shocking one, as our smartphone investigation at Friends of the Earth reveals. We looked at the origins of the 2g of tin-rich solder in every mobile, and found that tin mining on the Indonesian island of Bangka is destroying tropical forests, choking coral reefs and devastating communities. Our video about tin-mining in Bangka reveals more:

Although the companies may not have known the source of their tin or about the devastating effect of mining on the island, our research shows that tin mined in Bangka almost certainly ends up in smartphones and other products from some of the largest technology brands.

So what’s the solution?

At Friends of the Earth, we’re asking the leading smartphone makers to reveal their supply chains and work with industry and communities to resolve the situation in Bangka.

And to help prevent production problems happening elsewhere in the world, our new Make It Better campaign is calling for new rules to make all companies come clean about the human and environmental cost of their whole supply chains. At the moment, manufacturers don’t have to say where the raw materials used to make their products are from or report any pollution incidents or accidents.

Companies could do a lot more to use our world’s limited natural resources more efficiently through innovative product design.Takes phones as an example – super-fast charging batteries or handsets designed to be easily refurbished could make a big difference. Also, more re-use of parts would create less demand for things like tin, which would take the pressure off places like Bangka.

Millions of us love our smartphones and other gadgets – it’s about time we were able to love the way they’re made too.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth’s Executive Director. All opinions expressed here are Andy’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.

Who should be responsible for making sure products don’t damage the environment?

The manufacturers (57%, 200 Votes)

The government (27%, 93 Votes)

You and me, the shoppers (16%, 57 Votes)

Total Voters: 255

Loading ... Loading ...

Every electronic product that I have seen uses solder. The amount used has been decreased by using integrated circuits to replace many transistors etc., surface-mounting of components and wire-wrapping, but the use of solder to produce circuit boards will continue for some time. At least we now have lead-free solders that are less of a health hazard.

Friends of the Earth are encouraging us to email Samsung and Apple. It’s not just these companies and it’s not just mobile phones that are the problem. We could do a lot more.

1. Get rid of phone contracts that include a ‘free’ phone. That just encourages waste.

2. Promote products with a long guarantee. If manufacturers are responsible for providing a 10 year parts & labour guarantee on their products they would build them to a higher standard. Many products (e.g. boilers and washing machines) fail because of circuit board faults. Well made electronic circuitry is incredibly reliable and should add little to the cost.

3. Put an environmental tax on all new products, much in the same way that the cost of replacing a car tyre includes a fee for proper disposal of the old tyre. That will add to the cost, but savings from not having to pay for replacement of domestic appliances that have failed prematurely (see 2, above) will more than make up for the cost.

Rosemary Svendsen says:
7 December 2012

Some very constructive ideas here

simon owens says:
30 November 2012

So of all the smartphones and mobile phones being made, which ones do you suggest we buy? What is the most environmentally friendly phone available to us today? What is the most popular make you guys at Friends of the Earth use? Many thanks.

This is such an interesting topic. I read about the tin mining in the paper last week and was horrified. As a consumer and owner of a smart phone, I felt really angry that I had inadvertently (and perhaps naively) bought a product that had inflicted such harm on communities and the environment. If there was more transparency about the source of materials in the supply chain, and the impact on communities who source those materials, I wonder if it would help empower consumers to demand better from manufacturers?

simon owens says:
30 November 2012

I am sure it would.

Interesting programme about copper mining in Zambia on the other night. Same story. Pollution, exploitation and corruption but where are the consumer products that don’t damage the environment? I sometimes think FoE would have us go back to being hunter-gathers.

From the introduction: Who should be responsible for making sure products don’t damage the environment? This is misleading because it implies that it is possible to make products that don’t damage the environment.

Virtually everything we produce causes environmental damage. Some products, such as cars, create considerable environmental damage during use, and then there is the the damage caused in recycling and disposal of faulty, obsolete or unwanted items.

The best we can hope to do is to identify significant differences between products. Is it better to buy a particular model or brand of mobile phone than another? One thing we can be sure of is that in the vast majority of cases, it is far better to carry on using something for as long as possible than to throw it away and buy a shiny, new product.

Phil says:
1 December 2012

“One thing we can be sure of is that in the vast majority of cases, it is far better to carry on using something for as long as possible than to throw it away and buy a shiny, new product.”

Although that runs directly opposite to the ethos of Which? If we don’t keep buying shiny new products we have less need of their services.

Good point, Phil. I would like to see Which? focus more on consumer rights but reliable product reviews are more likely to attract subscribers and provide the funding they need to carry on their good work. Apart from some specialist products such as expensive cameras, their testing is in much greater depth than available elsewhere. I would like to see Which? having more involvement with Friends of the Earth and other organisations that have a concern for the environment. I really don’t think Which? should even review products that have a huge environmental impact, such as big, expensive cars that waste precious fuel.

The big trouble with this entire debate is that all these negative environmental issues have to fight for space with other things that occupy our waking hours. We are concerned (among other things) with what our relatives and friends are doing, what our children are up to in school, what the pay cheque (if there is one) will cover this month, how on earth we can fit in two dozen different engagements into the time available, what the next grocery shop will be, transport to and from everything and, of course communication by mobile phone. Specifically, the mobile is now a part of everyday life. The genie is out of the bottle, try stuffing it back in.

To deal effectively with issues like inappropriate tin mining, poor labour practices and the destruction of the environment, requires a sea change in the way we live. This might be forced upon us by circumstances for which we only have ourselves to blame, but I don’t see the government being able to change our appetite for the products that make our life comfortable, convenient and aspirational. I also don’t see manufacturers putting themselves out of business because they use too many natural resources to supply our demands. I applaud the efforts of organisations like Friends Of The Earth to tackle manufacturers directly. Wiil they be seen as thorns in the flesh or catalists for change? Will China or India clean up their industry or will they continue to point to the hypocritical West?

Through out history we have been driven (in the ‘developed’ countries) by the need to improve the standard of living. The industrial revolution was hailed as a new dawn. Looking back it was also brutal and ugly, but the Victorians didn’t see it like that. We strive for bigger and better in almost every area of our lives. Perhaps we are coming to a stage where we have reached a peak and we are going backwards. Concord no longer flies, movement round the U.K. is slower, hospitals breed diseases instead of curing them, high streets are collapsing, energy is getting more problematic and flooding and droughts are getting more commonplace. So, maybe, one solution to environmental polution will be an evolutionary one. Education will play a part for those who are prepared to be educated, but this won’t be universal by any means. Those thinkers, who care,(and are able to) will adapt their lives to be as protective as they can for the planet but I fear they are a minority of the live now pay later population.

I wonder how many will realise that it is possible to choose one two or three answers in the poll associated with this Conversation.

Having set many online tests for students, I’m familiar with the convention that circles show that one answer is allowed and that squares indicate that two or more are permitted. I doubt that most users will be aware of this.

In earlier polls of this type it has been clear that more than one answer can be chosen, but this one has slipped through.

It won’t happen in a market that is profit-driven. It has been no different over the centuries, so why shoould you expect it to change now? Most people just want more “things” assuming that means a higher living standard, and don’t think about the wider issues. You need a more realistic strategy if you are going to change behaviour – one that might work, not one that tries to pander to our better nature.
Recycling products, repairing products, making longer-lasting products could avoid their continual replacement. But this would inevitably add to costs, reduce sales (and therefore affect the consumer and manufacturing economy). We also have the “new features” upgrade syndrome – need the latest (I wonder why the last “latest” suddenly becomes not good enough?).
It isn’t about making us aware of the environmental impact, it’s about the way the consumer society operates. That’s you and me. Disrupting that would be akin to the banking crisis. What I am saying is that whilst there may be the best of intentions the issue is far more complex than it seems.

It may make us less wasteful if manufacturers had to give significantly longer guarantees – as the car makers have gradually introduced. Not separate insurances, but funded by the maker. This may encourage them to make more reliable longer-lasting products, or to introduce repair schemes.

Coincidentally, I had to purchase a new roll of solder the other day and was shocked at how much it has risen since I last purchased a roll (probably more than 10 years ago). A 500g roll of leaded solder is around £12 and lead-free solder (quite useless IMO) around £16. In future I will start using plastic push-fit plumbing – but I suppose that destroys something else!

I remember the sad demise of tin toothpaste tubes which let you roll up the tube as it was used and squeeze every molecule of toothpaste out.

Is there a call for the tin mines to reopen in Cornwall?

Nelson Spring says:
3 January 2013

Good to see environmental and ethical aspects of consumer products being discussed in Which? I’d like to see the Consumers’ Association supply information for all reviewed products:
(a) where it is made;
(b) particular environmenatal costs associated with particular types of product (if any);
(c) the parent company that makes it;
(d) some ethical index value of that company by an ethical investment expert.

Subscribers who don’t care about the environment, the exploitation of near-slave labour or corruption could ignore the ratings, but they would be very useful for those that cared, as this info is difficult to mine and would add great value.