Should You Care About What Goes In Your iPhone? Sustainability Goes Rogue

87% of teenagers own an iPhone, according to a recent survey, and 88% expect their next phone to be an Apple iPhone again. Add the fact that the very same survey ranks the environment as one of the most discussed topics by teens on social media, is it time to ask ourselves what goes into our favourite phones and how sustainable they are?

Apple is on track to sell 250 million new phones in 2021 with a combined footprint of 19.42 megatons (megaton = 1 million tons) of CO2. Building these complex devices as well as providing a good – long life - battery, makes up for the lion’s share of Apple’s carbon emissions.

Apple states that 71% of its footprint comes from the production of iPhones; this is mainly due to CO2 emissions linked to the mining of the of the various metals and rare earth ingredients that go into our phones.

Mining of metals is a dirty business. Mining leaves a lot of toxic waste and sludge and often leaves toxic residue in waterways. Most of the mining of the raw materials required to make our phones originates in developing countries. Mining practices in countries like Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Indonesia are (still) severely lacking in protecting both those who work for them and the environment they work in.

So, what are these many metals required to build an iPhone? Could they be changed? Today, our phones are built up of a host of different metals, aluminium and steel for the outer case and lithium, cobalt, tin, gold, copper and rare earths for the battery.

The battery ‘ingredients’ is where the problem starts, because its supply chain throws up a lot of issues. Issues of dominant players and how little we can do to hold them to account about how they treat their people and the planet. Rare earths for example come almost exclusively from China (allegedly 70% of it) and China is equally the world’s biggest aluminium producer and biggest exporter of gold, effectively holding Western consumers in the palm of its hand.

Whereas the other metals needed to make our phones are mined in a variety of countries, like Chile, Australia, Myanmar, Bolivia and South Africa, 60% of all cobalt used in iPhone batteries (and laptop and electric car batteries) come from the DRC, which is reported to violate human rights, use child labour in its cobalt mines and greatly deprave its natural habitat and wildlife. For our favourite phones, China and the DRC are the key suppliers, and we have no real idea or say in how they mine the stuff we need.

The fashion- and automotive industries, which are equally heavily polluting, are being pressurised by consumers to change and clean up their supply-chains. The many initiatives around sustainability in these industries have been a positive force for change. It seems we do not – yet - ask about our electronics. Is this our blind spot?

Apple is making some effort to be more sustainable and avoid ‘conflict’ materials and to reduce its dependency on large and dominant suppliers. However, being one of the world’s most powerful companies with annual sales of $275 billion and net profits of $57.4 billion (2020), there would be room to do much, much more and find alternative, maybe synthetic, iPhone ‘ingredients, friendlier to the planet.

Would voting with our feet and wallets help? Yes! A simple start could be if we use our iPhones longer. Apple would take note of this quickly as it would be reflected in their revenues. The power to change things is bigger than you may think and, besides, it’s cool to care!

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