Is capitalism responsible for the manufacture of the smartphone?

On the ecology of the smartphone

1 Introduction

2. A “Green Deal” for the smartphone?

3. Actor perspective

4. The ecology of a mass product

5. What to do

6. On the philosophy of smartphones in global capitalism

7. Conclusion and outlook

8. List of sources

1 Introduction

Communicative and entertaining, large display, long-lasting battery. This is how everyone wishes:

The smartphone: Chip board, memory, battery (mostly integrated), copper wires, photo camera, aluminum housing, display, the technical artifact is ready.

And yet we all use it: It takes away the feeling of loneliness and disconnection. We are always available and have less and less time -

But researchers have recently warned of the ecological consequences of massive use for humans and the environment.

The scrapping shows up in the form of an informal trading system in which the so-called “third countries” appear in the stranglehold of their own impotence to act.

The following text passages attempt to convey a contemporary picture of a market that has not yet been adapted to its requirements.

Politicians are downright incapable of acting and the informal, unregulated e-waste sector is booming. A sustained triad of action can only come about from all actors.

2. A “Green Deal” for the smartphone?

A binding “Green Deal” in the sense of a 100% friable recycling model from the extraction of raw materials (primary area) to the melting down of old devices and the recycling of their components has not yet existed for the mobile phone manufacturers.

The disposal of electronic waste is regulated very differently from one country to another.

So far there are no binding (legal) interventions that are internationally binding. On the one hand there is the area of ​​manufacture, assembly of components and the electricity required for this, on the other hand the coin of recycling.

About 1/3 of the CO2 emissions are due to traffic, 15% are due to information technology.

China must undertake in the long term to lower its carbon footprint, because the “dirty” energy mix from the stone coal is currently the standard for the assembly of components in smartphones. 1

Which brings us to the subject of coal, which brings a lot of coal, but destroys the planet. We're shutting down a power plant here and opening new ones in China.

That is precisely the crux of the lack of international climate policy. Because in China, too, people want to participate in capitalism, and manufacturers such as UMIDIGI, Huawei, Cubot, Elephone .. are in competition with one another.

Svenja Schulze (SPD) has been complaining for some time that the climate targets will be missed if things continue like this, which is why national solo attempts are exposed to strong criticism.

The current “dream” of primarily German politics is nationwide e-mobiles powered by electricity from renewable energies. Nobody (yet) thinks about smartphones and tablets. These are big energy guzzlers that have a lasting impact on our ecological footprint.

The dilemma of the nation states characterizes climate protection policy. Conceptually, it does not seem unprofessional to account for the environmental factor in the group market economy, but the methods are practically enforced due to the temporal implementation and will particularly displease the representatives in the Union and FDP.

Christian Lindner speaks of individual planned economic measures.

But there has to be an international solution, as only 16% of e-waste is formally recycled.2 Formal recycling must finally replace informal scrapping. I have not yet seen a G20 summit on the subject of “electronic waste”, although it was about plastic, but more about saving the littered seas.

The trade in electronic waste must also be reorganized, more regionally, locally, more ecologically. So far, green ideas have been based more on the willingness of manufacturers and are a market segment for “eco”. The political hype is due to the fear of the effects of climate change, as well as the knowledge of unsafe energetic technologies such as nuclear power. Manufacturers and corporations are now actively pursuing resource policy, but is that also climate protection policy?

The political shortcoming of environmental policy is its “lack of commitment”. Decisions are postponed and not pursued, vetoes are inserted, and the political right (e.g. AfD) denies climatic changes.

The advantages and disadvantages are worked out in expert commissions. And Germany is a "drop" on the political world map. (also an ecological one) ...

Politicians are reluctant to look for deals with the economy and prefer to let the market go on bluntly.

A lot of electronic waste is left over in developing countries, which is melted down there under dangerous conditions3 (so-called backyard recycling e.g. in African countries such as Ghana).

When it comes to recycling, global value chains are still going their own way. The toxic price is paid by people in Ghana who have pollutants in their blood and still have to foot the bill if German development aid wants to sell you a “recycling workshop” as a loan on favorable terms.

Here, too, we are back at the formal cosmetics studio, only in the area of ​​“development aid”. A green deal must also be a deal between the industry and the consumer. Both are dependent on each other and have to meet each other. The “data-hungry” consumer who is always “appending” online has to rethink his or her behavior without immediately losing all of his smartphone freedom.

The mass market for smartphones must be leveled by political framework conditions. There must be conditions that manufacturers have to meet in the long term.

This is not done through bans, but guidelines that are to be made binding.

So far, there are few of the big companies like Apple® that make their production more environmentally friendly and do without the use of non-recyclable chemicals. Apart from the fact that Apple can afford it, the whole market has to be rethought.

There are few providers with exchangeable batteries (see Greenpeace 2011: 11). The mass of cheap suppliers with permanently installed batteries are to be viewed critically. These smartphones are calculated in such a way that the next purchase of a new device will be delighted after 1-3 years. Especially the cell phones that are advertised as entry-level or low-budget models.

Although there is a clear potential for CO2 savings if you offer replaceable batteries. So the smartphone does not have to be scrapped if the battery breaks.

It is true that the television is in the first place after environmental pollution4, both in production and consumption, but the digital unsustainable smartphone epidemic adds up to the number of users.

The decisive subject of the energy criticism is the lengthy production chain of the devices, the use is due only 24% (ZHAW project "Digital Sufficiency"5 ). If users were to use their smartphone for just one year longer, the environmental impact could be reduced by ¼. Here is a central starting point for ecological criticism: the smartphone throwaway society.

"The manufacture of a smartphone accounts for 77 percent of the environmental impact of the entire life cycle of the mobile phone."

(see This is how much cell phones really pollute the environment)

Manufacturing and raw material generation are the main pillars of the CO2 balance.

The consumer is not completely subordinate to the CO2 balance of the smartphone, but it is

Data exchange is not as harmful as production.

The tricky thing about the smartphone market and the threat to the environment is also the ever faster change of smartphones and their owners. If we buy a new one every year, our carbon footprint also increases.

With average usage, we consume 1 ton of CO2 (!) Per year with the smartphone. There is potential for savings for the user in the behavior of smartphone use, a conscious mentality, recycling implementation and incentives that the state could set. → see (Chapter 5) I will go into these sub-points in more detail later.

It has to be a deal that prevents the “dirty profits” of the smartphone industry and restricts the current market hustle and bustle.

How is that supposed to work? Am I even addressing the subject of market decimation? Does the state have to intervene? (Steering on the supply side vs. demand)

Because what do we expect for the future?

Miners in the Congo, well paid, an economical resource product without complexity? What does a good, ecologically acceptable smartphone look like?

These are questions that we will have to deal with in the future. We have to start getting people to buy sustainable smartphones (demand potential).

The current model is only profitable as long as the manufacturing costs are relatively low and bring maximum profit. The model follows capitalist laws.

It is currently clear that buying a sustainable smartphone does not match our consumer wishes. The market simply has to change, it also has to accept that big profits at the expense of people and the environment are no longer possible.

The market cannot be abolished or transformed, but it can be influenced.

Left French recently shouted "growth slowdown"6. But how does this development affect society? On the one hand there are jobs that will then disappear, there are perhaps fewer countries that are involved in the production chain of the smartphone, economic problems can follow ...

We buy smartphones in New York, manufacture them in China and obtain the raw materials for them in Africa. It couldn't be more harmful.

An integrated 128 GB storage disk costs quite a lot of circuit board material. The more powerful the smartphone, the more energy-intensive it is and the more electricity it needs. If everyone could afford ever bigger, faster and more efficient devices, then the material collapse is inevitable at some point, because not all materials in a smartphone can be recycled.7

And at the moment it looks more like the boom in the smartphone industry is not over yet. The devices are getting faster, bigger, more powerful, but not exactly more energy-efficient.

On the contrary, things are developing differently at the moment: things are going on bluntly and the cell phone market is growing and growing. But the ecological and social risks are also increasing.

Recently dumps full of e-waste in Malaysia as China refuses to recycle and accept it.

What we need are at least binding international disposal guidelines so that electronic waste and plastic misery like the current one in Malaysia does not happen.8 It affects the poorest countries that cannot provide high quality recycling implementation. The e-waste trade is booming, but political responsibility looks different.

The best thing to do is to take care of the scrap that mostly causes it, the beneficiaries of the industrialized nations (!). It cannot be that it is cheaper (including the transport costs) to bring the electronic waste to Malaysia and at some point to burn it in Africa. What kind of cycle is it that is anything but sensible from an ecological point of view.

The market cannot solve these ecological and social problems; the state as an actor will increasingly be asked to develop clever concepts and alternatives.

The state as a “garbage manager”? Where industry, trade and the population cannot tackle it.

7.1 billion smartphones have been produced since 2007, equivalent to the current world population. The smartphone is particularly widespread among the 18-35 year olds, although nothing speaks against it at first. The youth are more tech-savvy than the current older generation. I am not necessarily serving a prejudice with this, because the number of users underpins the trend (use is not quite as widespread among "older people").9 The fact is: The linear growth model with short-term profits in the IT industry is not sustainable and endangers the climate and ecology of the planet in the long term.

Consumers can also “objectively” guess that the system is not particularly sustainable. Because the Billg Phone industry is booming. Not everyone can afford the expensive devices, and the billg phone industry is so calculated that the cell phones won't last long.

Let's be self-critical: The rebound effect of eco-incentive systems is part of the market and can only thrive in their exploitation strategies and conditions.

Those who can afford it in our society urgently need to relocate to sustainable fairphones and reduce product design expectations. With every new “cheap phone” on the smartphone market, we pervert our own desired goals and the diffusion of responsibility continues to increase. Diffusion of responsibility refers to the discrepancy between the perception of responsibility in spirit and political practice.

3. Actor perspective

Market limitation is reminiscent of socialist aspirations and is extremely unpopular-The Left cannot currently benefit if it says that the ecological crisis is also a social crisis. When it was rejected, it was 5.5% in the last European elections.

Not to mention their models of newer resource management through "wage normalization" and "regulatory" measures, it will not make friends with the population. Old memory associations such as “Socialism = All are poor” and thoughts of lack of freedom / dictatorial aspirations come back to the light of day. Some will see it as a restriction of (market) freedoms.10

Markets, however, are changeable and flexible and adapt quickly to new situations, but the market also decides the consumption of resources and the scope of production. Müller / Passadikis11 formulated 20 theses against green capitalism and why it threatens to fail. Every form of market will collide with the biosphere in the long term.


1 See Greenpeace Report 2011: 7: "10 Years of Smartphones: The Consequences of 7 Billion Mobile Phones"

2 See Greenpeace Report (2011)


4 (see UBP environmental pollution points ZHAW project Zurich)

5 See Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW project)

6 see also online:

7 Greenpeace Report (2011: 6)

8 see online:

9 see Statista online source: juveniles-in-germany /

10 See Schachtschneider, Ulrich (2009: 4): rls Viewpoints: Green New Deal: Dead end or nothing?

11 Müller, Tadzio / Passakidis, Alexis 2008: 20 theses against green capitalism. http: // climateactioncafe. wordpress. com / 2008/12/05 / 20- thesesagainst-green-capitalism

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