Smart phones and the cycle of unsustainability

Scientists, engineers and others are working hard to reduce pollution that poisons the planet and contributes to climate change. But psychologists might be better suited to tackling how and why consumers spend their money on products that take a toll on the environment. John Dyer reports.

A new study shows that psychologists could have just as important a role to play as scientists in encouraging sustainable consumption. (Image credit: Jakob Owens via Unsplash)

If you want to understand how consumer behaviour is harming the environment, look no further than smart phones. They’re ubiquitous and contain as many as 50 elements, including rare earth metals mined in conflict zones and toxic materials that harm life. Yet users replace their phones approximately every two years, according to studies, driving a cycle of unsustainability.

Since tech companies profit from selling new phones, critics often charge them with purposely antiquating their technology to drive demand and discouraging consumers from buying refurbished and repaired smart phones.

Consumers driven by desire to possess latest technology

But in a new paper published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, researchers at Yale University found that the intangible value of brand names and a desire to possess the latest technology exerted more of an effect on consumers than the functionality of their devices.

The findings cast doubt on claims that tech companies purposely antiquate their technology or that refurbishing devices would reduce the amount of waste in the smart phone supply chain.

“People bash the phone companies for ‘planned obsolescence’ of their products, but in most cases phones are replaced when they are still working fine, so improving repairability won’t necessarily help much,” said the study’s lead author, Tamar Makov, a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, in a press release.

“Perhaps we should be focused on what really makes us replace phones so quickly, or we should be angry at manufacturers for making really good commercials. But it’s likely that the problem is not the hardware.”

Apple phone has longest value life

Studying 500,000 listings of secondhand Apple and Samsung phones – which comprise around 70 per cent of the smart phone market – Makov and her colleagues compared the prices of used products to their original retail prices. They then compared the declining costs of phones as they grew older and compared models from both companies that had comparable screen sizes, memory, cameras and similar features.

They found that Samsung phones become value-less after 54.5 months. Apple phone, on the other hand, could be sold for around 67 months, a year later.

Widely considered more desirable, Apple products are costlier than Samsung products. But the researchers noted that the two companies’ phones are nearly the same in terms of quality. In fact, they are engaged in a patent infringement lawsuit that suggests they share key technology.

Marketing sustainable consumption

The findings illustrate the potential of using intangible properties – advertising and marketing, public education campaigns, media coverage and other communications – to promote sustainable consumption of these and other popular consumer goods, said Makov.

“It’s not that technical specifications don’t matter,” she said. “But no matter what combination of specs were included in our analysis, brand name had a substantial impact. Some phones last longer, and it’s not just because they’re repairable or more functionally durable. It’s also the psychological aspects that make them more durable. That’s important to remember.”

Among those psychological aspects is security, according to John Hunter, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of California at Irvine. In August, he conducted a study that suggested that people became attached to their smartphones like children and their blankets or teddy bears.

“Our results suggest that the mere presence of a phone, not necessarily actually using it, can buffer against the negative experience and effects of social exclusion,” said Hunter in a statement. “It could be that possessing your phone is a reminder of your support system, symbolically and literally allowing you to connect with others outside your immediate surroundings.”

Those are barriers that would be difficult to surmount, but humankind might have little choice.

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