This side event provided an overview of the different solutions to assist in the sustainable production and consumptions of smartphones, and aimed to identify ways to replicate and scale up such measures. The session was opened by Ms Annika Lindblom (Secretary-General of the National Commission on Sustainable Development and Counsellor at the Ministry of Environment of Finland), who explained that sustainable development goal (SDG) 12 (sustainable consumption and production) is not ‘just a stand-alone goal’, but rather an ‘approach’ to the implementation of the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement. In this context, smartphones have great potential to drive sustainable development forward. Nevertheless, their consumption and production also pose risks to sustainability, especially considering that they are often marked by short product lifetimes. Challenges range from the generation of e-waste, exposure to hazardous substances and their use of energy, to working rights and the risk of the integration of conflict minerals in their production. To minimise these negative effects on people and the environment, these implications need to be addressed urgently, and good practices need to be scaled up.
Next, Ms Sue Riddlestone (CEO and Co-Founder of Bioregional) introduced the work of Transform Together and its Smartphone Working Group, which connects experts from different sectors to share knowledge and identify and scale up solutions (see their report on Creating sustainable smartphones: Scaling up best practices to achieve SDG 12). Throughout this session, seven solutions were discussed:
Mining due diligence processes
Public procurement to improve working conditions
Consumer information and phone repair
E-waste collection at scale
Proper recycling of second life phones
Speaking on the topic of responsible mining and manufacturing, Mr Bandi Mbubi (Founder of Congo Calling) highlighted the need to increase compliance with due diligence processes in the mining industry, as a lack of such processes could heighten the risk of conflict in mineral-rich areas. Mbubi warned that progress made in this area is at risk of being erased due to a lack of commitment in the public sector. In addition, due diligence processes have so far been largely ineffective in improving living conditions and the prosperity of local populations.
One way to improve accountability is through certification, and Ms Clare Hobby (Global Outreach and Communications, TCO Development) explained how TCO Development provides sustainability certification for IT products. Such certification mechanisms should make it possible to improve transparency and verify accountability, not just before certification, but also afterwards, by monitoring corrective policies and ensuring the compliance of industry.
The next two speakers addressed the topic of sustainable procurement. Mr Cuno van Geet (Senior Policy Advisor at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management of the Netherlands) emphasised that ‘we underestimate the power of what we can already do’, and that public procurement provides extensive opportunities to make the mobile phone supply chain more sustainable. Sustainable public procurement is not only ‘the responsible option’, it is also a prerequisite for solving waste problems, while at the same time, offering the possibility to create financial benefits and opportunities in employment, education, and poverty. This can be done by implementing use cases, building roadmaps, sharing information, and working in partnerships.
Mr Peter Pawlicki (Director of Outreach and Education at Electronics Watch) explained how public procurement could help improve workers’ rights. By working with a range of stakeholders, and in particular local civil society organisations, Electronic Watch monitors the working conditions in the supply chain, measuring impact ‘through the workers’ eyes’. Pawlicki added that this is ultimately in the interest of industry, as qualified and motivated employees will become increasingly necessary as businesses digitise and transform into ‘Industry 4.0’.
On the issue of product life extension, Mr Helio Mattar (CEO of Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption) highlighted the relative height of e-waste per capita in Latin America. E-waste could be addressed by extending the lifetime of products, for example by refurbishing electronics. Yet, despite their financial and environmental benefits, there are a number of barriers that prevent their uptake by consumers, including misconceptions and a lack of awareness about these products. These barriers could be reduced by providing warranties and eco-labels, as well as by better communicating the benefits of refurbished electronics. Ultimately, such efforts need to be underpinned by public policies focused on capacity building, tax benefits, financial investments, infrastructure, and education.
Mr Pranshu Singhal (Founder of Karo Sambhav) explained that in India, e-waste has an annual growth rate of 40%, with limited infrastructure, accountability, and enforcement of public policies. Singhal emphasised the need to enable behavioural change, integrate the informal sector, and create standards. In addition, effective enforcement of policies by governments will be essential in incentivising companies to implement sustainable business models.
Mr Reinhardt Smit (Project Director Africa at Closing the Loop) identified the challenges of incentivising people to take action for the SDGs, which are often perceived as long-term, unappealing, and theoretical. To address SDG 12, Closing the Loop looked at the ‘footprint’ of the mobile phone, which generates challenges in both its production phase (mining), as well as in its end-of-life phase (e-waste). The organisation provides an opportunity for stakeholders to compensate these effects by turning waste into value, and works with governments, users, and industry alike.
The solutions proposed by the seven speakers were then discussed by Mr Charles Arden-Clarke (Head of the One Planet Network Secretariat of UN Environment), who highlighted the need for coordination in order to identify the right partners and scale up. In turn, there is a possibility to ‘shift orders of magnitude’ and accelerate impact through ‘intelligent and informed collective action’. In this context, van Geet added that there is a particular need to get industry on board. The need for scaling up was emphasised by a participant, who reminded the room about the three billion people who currently do not have access to a mobile phone. Their introduction to the market will significantly magnify the challenges related to sustainable consumption and production. According to Mattar, it is unlikely that a sustainable solution will be developed for the next 3 billion mobile phone users ‘however much we work on recycling’. There is a need for something ‘disruptive’; a change in the business models of the production of these phones towards more durable phones that can be repaired again and again.