Did Smartphones Get a Green Boost in O2's Rating Scheme?

LONDON, United Kingdom — O2 has today earned plaudits with the launch a major new initiative designed to rate the environmental credentials of 65 leading mobile phones and provide consumers with an easy to understand guide to which phones are greenest.

The company is to be applauded for the move, which seeks to extend the environmental labelling that has worked effectively for cars and household appliances to the mobile phone sector.

The scheme should, as O2 anticipates, make it easier for consumers to pick up phones that boast solid green credentials, while also increasing pressure on manufacturers to deliver new phones that are energy efficient, easy to recycle and relatively free of toxic components.

But a closer look at the phones at the top of O2's eco mobile phone rating system reveals that the criteria used to assess the phones must contain a few surprises.

A number of smartphones have made it into the group of top-ranked phones, despite the fact they clearly use more energy, more components and more materials, than stripped down phones with less functionality.

Speaking to BusinessGreen.com, James Taplin from Forum for the Future, which produced the rating scheme for O2, admitted that alongside criteria covering the corporate responsibility of the manufacturer, raw materials and manufacturing processes, toxic substances, packaging and logistics, and environmental impacts during the use and disposal of the phone, the organisation introduced criteria based on the functionality of the device.

Taplin said judging the environmental credentials of a phone based on its functionality was likely to prove controversial, and admitted that the criteria had been introduced because it did not want smart phones to "all come out at the bottom" of the ratings.

The key question for green consumers is whether measuring a device's environmental credentials based on its functionality rather than its physical impact is justified.

Taplin made the somewhat tenuous point that people could use smartphone's video conferencing functionality to cut down on travel and the far more reasonable point that the satnav functionality found in many modern smartphones would mean that consumers would no longer have to buy a new satnav. Given that the bulk of the carbon emissions generated by electronic devices are produced during manufacture it seems fair to argue that replacing your satnav, camera and MP3 player with one multi-purpose device would have a positive environmental impact.

But these environmental benefits will only be realised if people really do use their smartphone for everything and stop buying other gadgets and -- much to the manufacturers' chagrin -- stop replacing their phones once a year. Otherwise, smartphones have simply been awarded extra points in the new O2 rating system that they do not really deserve.

O2 and Forum for the Future insist that they have developed a balanced rating system with a good mix of different devices among those awarded high marks. They also point out that the rating system gives room for all manufacturers to improve and that if it wants to attract customers to greener phones they need to have a good range of differing devices to select from.

But at the same time it is worth noting that green rating systems that edge away from the physical characteristics of a device (How much energy does it use? What components does it contain? What is its carbon footprint?) risk questions about the validity and fairness of their more arbitrary criteria.

This article originally appeared on BusinessGreen, and is reprinted with permission.