Time for mobiles to go sustainable

Disposability – that bedrock of consumerism and bête noir of the Green movement – is rife in the mobile phone industry, sustained as it is by contracts offering perpetual upgrades. Scott Billings asks what role design plays in this environmental quagmire – is it complicit, or can it help stem the tide of electronic waste?


Electrical and electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the UK, with 1.8 million tonnes generated annually, according to the Government. It’s easy to see why: an abundance of super-cheap goods has led us to view many products as practically disposable. It’s easy to throw things away and replace them with newer, smarter ones at relatively little cost.

And nowhere is this disposability more prevalent than with mobile phones, an industry largely sustained by the perpetual upgrades of subsidised or apparently free handsets. Try telling staff in a phone store that you haven’t upgraded your handset in over two years – they won’t believe you. According to a Science Museum exhibition in 2006, there were then more than 1700 mobile handset upgrades every hour, around 15 million a year. In this scheme of things, where constant desirability is paramount, where does design sit? Is it curative or complicit?

When it comes to limiting the environmental cost of manufacturing and using electronic devices, designers and engineers clearly play a crucial role. ‘If the brief allows us to offer a solution that integrates a sustainable approach, then we do it. Sometimes we do it when not asked,’ says Factory Design director Adam White.

But at the same time, design as styling is a major factor in millions of handset upgrades. All the big players – Motorola, LG, Samsung, Nokia, Sony Ericsson – have evangelised the power of design to create differentiation and desire. Like marketing, it can encourage consumption. ‘It is fair to say that, as with fashion, a cool design is often why people want to change their handset. But with environmental issues firmly on the agenda, designers’ skills will make a significant difference to, say, a product’s lifecycle. They will also be used to make things pretty if that’s what’s called for,’ adds White.

Genuine sustainability, in any industry, can only be achieved with control over the entire product lifecycle and business system. ‘To have a truly sustainable product, it’s got to be designed in tandem with the business delivering it to the consumer, and for mobiles it generally isn’t. It’s the network operators which control what happens to their products,’ says Ryder Meggitt, director of design at Element 06. ‘Controlling the whole process would change the design because you can look at ways to get repeat revenue from each handset. A phone would act almost as a service system, rather than a one-off unit with a one-time value,’ he says.

As ever, Apple’s iPhone emerges as a model to consider, with its user interface perhaps the most important feature for sustainability. The unit’s glass screen and multi-touch operation become a blank canvas, adaptable to any number of future functions by upgrading the software inside. ‘One way of reducing disposability is to keep high-level functions going, lessening the desire to upgrade. The iPhone is highly adaptable, as it’s not restricted by buttons and layout,’ adds Meggitt.

Working with its exclusive UK phone operator O2, Apple might also start to ‘close the lifecycle loop’ and seek proper take-back of iPhone handsets at the end of their lives, allowing high-value components to be reused in lower-level phones. In the meantime, it already gains extra revenue from services, via iPhone purchases of music and videos from iTunes. In other words, Apple already controls some of what happens with its phones post-sale.

Nokia designers are working on similar concepts, dubbed Homegrown, where a phone ‘wears in, not out’ by using digital, rather than physical, upgrades to its functions. In this light, Nokia Design head of strategic projects Rhys Newman rejects the idea that design is a vehicle to promote consumption of new products. ‘Within Homegrown, design was more about defining a set of guiding principles that could result in products that are both desirable and sustainable,’ he says. ‘If you change the way that you create products and use materials that are 100 per cent recyclable, you not only create sustainable products in environmental terms but sustainable business models. Design in my world is no longer an inconsequential activity seducing people into purchasing things they don’t need.’

Eventually though, all handsets will reach the end of their product life and it’s at this point where the real business end of long-term sustainability kicks in. ‘When a factory is building an assembly line, they don’t usually think about building a disassembly line too,’ notes Phelan Associates director Philip Phelan, echoing an emerging ‘cradle to cradle’ design philosophy. Phelan is working with Hong Kong group Product Solutions on a range of sustainable technologies, including solar power-gathering ‘energised surfaces’ and electrostatic fabrics that generate power from movement.

But technology changes, although realised by designers, are driven by industry, says Phelan. ‘We wouldn’t have moved from Bakelite to modern plastics if people like BASF hadn’t been walking the streets to show the materials to design houses. There’s a plethora of new materials out there and designers are the focal point for a lot of the vendors. But at the end of the day it has to be money-driven. And as designers, we’re able to help charge a premium on the product because of its new characteristics.’ l

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.