Fairphone Demonstrates the Dramatic Impact of Making Things That Last

Keeping a phone for five years reduces its annual carbon footprint by 33%.

A person laying on the couch holding a Fairphone


We North American treehuggers have long admired the concept of the Fairphone despite a harsh reality: The openable, repairable, upgradable, and totally remarkable Best-of-Green Award-winning phone is not available here. Nonetheless, we keep writing about it because it is a model of how things should be made and sold.

The Netherlands-based electronics manufacturer debuted the Fairphone 4 last fall and just dropped a massive 215-page lifecycle analysis (LCA) that gives real numbers about the carbon footprint and other impacts. It confirms a basic Treehugger dictum: buy quality products, maintain them well, and make them last. This applies to everything in life, but it is particularly relevant for phones.

One of the things people expect from phones is that they will run for a very long time, but they should also be thin and light. So besides having the most efficient batteries on the planet, they are also designed to sip electricity. This means they have extremely low operating energy requirements and subsequent operating carbon emissions from their electrical consumption during the use phase.

The carbon emissions from the electricity vary according to how the electricity is generated. The LCA used a German energy mix, which is not the cleanest in Europe, averaging 485 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilowatt-hour in 2017. But still, the phone uses so little that the carbon emissions are pretty small.

Making the phones is another story. They are packed with high-tech wonders made from elements like gold, lithium, cobalt, and indium that take a lot of energy to get out of the ground and to turn into useful chips and batteries, which are then packaged in cases of aluminum and magnesium. The CO2 and equivalents from these processes are what we call embodied carbon. Or what I prefer to call upfront carbon emissions—they are not embodied in the phone but are in the air, emitted upfront before you even get your phone.

The upfront carbon emissions are huge in comparison to the operating emissions. If you live in a place with a clean electricity supply—say France; Quebec, Canada; or Washington, U.S.—they are an even higher proportion of the total. It is a great demonstration of what I have pretentiously called the "ironclad rule of carbon."

The Ironclad Rule of Carbon

As we electrify everything and decarbonize the electricity supply, emissions from embodied carbon will increasingly dominate and approach 100% of emissions. — Lloyd Alter

Embodied or upfront carbon is pretty much fixed at the beginning when you get your phone, with some added if you replace something like the battery during the life of the phone and some subtracted if you recycle the materials at the end of life. That's why a key component of a lifecycle analysis is: How long is the lifecycle? That is going to be a function of the quality of the phone, the repairability so you can keep it going, the desirability, and the functionality.

I upgraded my iPhone 7 to an iPhone 11 Pro because I wanted a better camera. Treehugger Editorial Director Melissa Breyer did likewise, explaining why she bought a new one: "My last one lasted about 4 years, but mostly because I couldn’t resist the latest camera; they have my number!"

This is how our economy works. As journalist Vance Packard wrote in his 1960 book, "The Waste Makers," quoting an industrial designer:

"Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence, and everybody who can read without moving his lips should know it by now. We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete... It isn’t organized waste. It’s a sound contribution to the American economy."

That was then. Today it is organized waste. Today we are worried about the carbon emissions that come from buying every product cycle or two. The Fairphone LCA shows that the difference in lifecycle emissions by not rushing out to get the fancy new model is dramatic and profound:

A graph showing the longevity impact per year of use


Keeping the Fairphone for five years instead of three reduces its impact per year of use by 31%. If you can keep it going for seven years, it's 44%.

impact of use

Fairphone LCA

When you look at the version of this from the actual LCA and are standing next to a French nuclear plant, all that dirty grey German power comes out and the difference is even greater; the impact per year of use by holding the phone for seven years is less than half.

"The best way to reduce the impact a phone has on the environment is to make sure that it can be used for as long as possible," said Thea Kleinmagd, Fairphone's circular material chains innovator, in a press release. "Parts that can be easily replaced or repaired allow this—which helps to minimize the phone’s effects on people and the planet.”

manufacturing parts


Then there is the question of the functional obsolescence that drove Breyer and me to get new iPhones even though the build quality is such that they can usually keep going. With the Fairphone, you can easily upgrade the camera if a new one comes out. You can change the battery yourself. You can keep it functionally up to date.

It won't last forever—the phone is tied to a network and it gets upgrades, too. But five and even seven years do not seem unreasonable, and Fairphone has extended its warranty to five years to reflect this.

The embodied carbon in electronics is a big deal. The total lifecycle footprint of the Fairphone is estimated to be 95 pounds (43 kilograms); that is a heavy phone if you had to lift all the carbon. When I wrote my book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle" about trying to live on a very tight carbon budget, I concluded: "My electronics use almost no energy to run, but the carbon emitted while making them has buried me."

There are so many reasons to love the Fairphone, not the least of which is the 5-year warranty because those dramatic decreases in carbon emissions are paralleled by the dramatic reductions in cash expenditures when you keep the phone running for five years instead of two or three years, as is common with iPhones. The fact that it is so easy to do so with the Fairphone makes me once again wish they sold it in North America; it would do very well here.