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How sustainable is the Fairphone 3?

Originally published at: https://www.fairphone.com/en/2020/07/31/how-sustainable-is-the-fairphone-3/

At Fairphone, our dedication to change means a dedication to measurement. We’ve just completed the life cycle assessment on the Fairphone 3, and we’re humble-proud to present our results.

As with the Fairphone 2, we turned to the independent experts at the Fraunhofer Institute IZM to examine the phone’s lifelong environmental impact – from the mine to the factory to the store to your pocket to the product’s end of life and the recycling of its materials and parts. It’s a measure of the relative evils involved in modern electronics, from how much the Fairphone contributes to our planet’s CO2 burden to the human and environmental impact of its materials to the toll it takes on the reserves of scarce natural resources.

 

The results validate three key elements of the Fairphone strategy: the value of longevity and modularity in reducing a phone’s lifelong environmental cost, and the positive impact of using reused and recycled materials.

Modularity matters: the biggest impact is the phone’s core

When Fraunhofer Institute looked at the relative contribution of the phone’s parts to its CO2 emissions, they found at least 70% of the carbon footprint is in the core — the central module that contains the system-on-a-chip (think of it as the brains). That’s the part of the phone that you’re least likely to change and the one we want to make last the longest. By ensuring that you can easily swap out less carbon-intensive modules like the battery, the camera, and the display, which each account for only 5-7% of the footprint, we can keep your core module going longer.

What’s more, we’ve achieved big improvements in the carbon cost of module production. In the Fairphone 2, the modular parts contributed to 12% of the CO2 emissions in production, while in the Fairphone 3, they represent only 2.3% of the emissions in production. We’re designing for repairability at an even smaller carbon overhead.

 

On top of those savings, every time we refurbish a module, we further save lifetime CO2. When you extend the life of your phone by swapping a part, and we refurbish and reuse that module as a repair part, we’re extending the life of another one of those precious core units, and we can save up to 95% emissions in some modules.

Longevity is key: the longer your phone lives, the more the planet prospers

The life cycle assessment of the Fairphone 3 confirms something we’ve known since Fairphone’s inception: the longer a device is used, the smaller its environmental footprint. But barriers to smartphone longevity remain an issue. A key component of longevity is connected to the continued software and security support of phones. When the operating system and software that run on older core units stop being supported, the drop-off in usability and security is steep. This is why we, shoulder to shoulder with the Fairphone community, have been working so hard to continue providing software support.

 

The Fraunhofer Institute’s report reveals that the use of a smartphone for five to seven years can reduce CO2 emissions per year by a whopping 28-40%. Despite our steady march to longer product use, there is still some way to go before seven years of use is a reality. With Fairphone 2 and the community-driven software upgrade to android 9, we will very almost certainly hit or exceed the mark of 6 years support. We hope to see Fairphone 3 make it even further, but a little help from our friends in the software industry could make that a less resource-intensive task.

Train transport: it’s how we roll now

Transport is another big contributor to CO2 emissions. Most phones in Europe arrive by air freight. That turned out to be a major contributor to the overall footprint of the phone, and in the case of smaller modules, actually exceeded the carbon cost of their production. We’re proving that’s unnecessary.
Your Fairphone 3 journeys from China to our distribution center in the Netherlands by train freight now, which lowered emissions by 87%. Both ocean transport and rail transport are lower carbon options that the entire industry could adopt. Phones don’t need to fly.

Recycling rocks: virgin plastic is screwing the planet

When it comes to components like the case, bumpers, and even that little screwdriver that comes with your phone, an important contributor to our lowered footprint is maximizing the use of recycled materials. The life cycle assessment reports that depending on the type of plastic, recycled sources generate 5 to 10 times less CO2 emissions than their virgin counterparts.

 

Bottom Line: hold on to that phone for dear life

We’d love to be able to show you how Fairphone stacks up to other phones, but few in the industry conduct even the most cursory analysis on their phones, and nobody transparently reports the calculations or assumptions behind their data. And no matter how proud we may be of our efforts, and the improvement in those efforts, we need the rest of the industry to follow in our footsteps and help people use their phones for a longer time. At the end of the day, the phone you have in your pocket, whether it’s a Fairphone or not, is going to follow a simple law of nature: the longer you use it, the more lightly it will have stepped upon the Earth.

Read the full LCA report >>

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Very interesting news and good to hear!

Now what I would love to see is if Fairphone would look into making micro-distribution (i.e. Tilburg -> customers) possible without air freight, too. I realize there’s probably still a lot of impatient customers who cannot stand to wait a week or two, but I would love to see air freight-free shipment options in the Fairphone shop for those who can deal with it and want to help the environment (read: us).

I’m curious: Did making the phone (almost) all-black help with increasing the share of recycled materials? In other words: Did you design it black to allow for as much recycled material as possible?

This kinda bugs me. The thing is that this essentially doesn’t mean “we saved CO2” but instead “we actually made the phone less modular by centralising more of the complex components to the core module”.
It is true that if your e.g. USB module breaks less CO2 is emitted by replacing it. On the other hand, when a FP2 core module gets swapped out, more carbon-intensive parts can be reused because they are located inside the smaller modules. Now, when a FP3 core module breaks, even more has to be thrown away, because all the important complex components are again soldered to one solid piece. I can see the pros, but I’m not sure that this is a step in the right direction…

Where did you get that from?
When I am reading

at least I would not jump to your translation.
Somewhere I think read, that the modules do need less gold, because the connections are designed differently and are fixed by screws. That’s e.g. a development, that would explain a drop in carbon cost.
But I might be wrong of course.

(Otherwise the carbon cost of modularity would be 0% without any modules. Hardly something to brag about.) :wink:

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It seems the link to the full report (https://www.fairphone.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Life-Cycle-Assessment-FP3.pdf) is broken. I just got a “404 page not found” error.

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Well, it is still a normal phone, so it has to have all the normal phone components, therefore I assume that they are just distributed in a more centralised way than in the FP2.
Of course if the module CO2 reduction came from an actual reduction my argument would be invalid.

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As it’s been hit and miss with the download link for me as well, I guess it cannot hurt to offer it here as well:

Fairphone_3_LCA.pdf (1.3 MB)

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Is it just me or are the pictures not show in the forum post?

I can’t see them either. Open the blog link :man_shrugging:

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Hey there. I also would like to know what is the CO2 emission during the warehousing process of Fairphone 3. Since there are so many suppliers involved in Fairphone’s supply chain, how about the greenness performance during the warehousing process?

Did you read the complete LCA report? You will find very detailed elements about CO2 emissions for every phase.

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Hey, thanks for your reaction. I will pass your view to our logistics team, Im sure they are working on some future improvements.

Concerning the black plastic, you are correct to say that it is easier to find suitable recycled plastic in that colour but it was not the only reason. All black is also easier and less complex for many other aspects :slight_smile:

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Hey thanks for your reaction. Actually this is not totally how it went. Actually FP3 has even one more module than FP2. The key as explained in the report, is that we stopped using pogo pin connectors with smaller board to board connectors that contain less gold and require less space in the PCB!

An on the core module: we have already made modular those part that we know break the most (most of the eletromechanical components). Also in the report we calculated the gains of repairing modules themselves, which we do in our repair center. But we need to balance modularity and repairability. Too modular would also not be possible from a mechanical / reliability perspective. Thanks!

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I guess, the FP2 was proof of that :wink: ; though in a different way.
And I appreciate, that you went for playing it safe aiming for the mass market.

(Otherwise I would have felt kind of foolish buying the FP3 as FP1 replacement.) :blush:

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