Green handsets subject to conflicting social and economic forces

Most mobile handset vendors acknowledge public pressure to create environmentally sound products. It is an issue they need to continue to address through their corporate responsibility charters. Faced with the economic realities of going green however, their appetite for creating biodegradable and recyclable products from sustainable resources often fades like a wireless signal in an underground carpark.

ABI Research director, Kevin Burden, commented: “Several proof products that epitomise a vendor’s best greening efforts are currently being marketed. But our research found that very few handset manufacturers, except those with the scale to do it economically, such as Samsung and Nokia, are highly motivated to produce lines of green phones. Instead, the effort is towards compliance and the trickling down of proven green elements throughout entire product lines.”

Scale is the key concept. Despite the vast numbers of phones that are produced and discarded every year, few vendors are working on the kind of scale that makes entire green product lines economically viable in their view.

Most mobile handset vendors do have recycling programs, but less than 5% of the annual worldwide volume of handsets shipped come back through recycling or ethical disposal programs. Regulatory pressures, coupled with corporate and social responsibilities, have forced the issue for most manufacturers. Many toxic substances have been legally banned and other substances known to threaten human health and the environment are being phased out voluntarily by many manufacturers.

Burden concluded: “A 2008 Nokia survey indicated that 76% of their respondents are more likely to buy phones from companies they consider environmentally responsible. That is a potential economic benefit, but hard to measure. As vendors move green features toward a platform approach for broader implementation, that is when negative economic factors flatten and the environment truly wins.”