- OK. So I'm going to start this week's investigation by asking you some questions about your phone. Here's the first one. Last time you upgraded, how long had you been using your old phone for? While you're racking your brain about that, here's what some people out shopping on a sunny day in Newcastle answered when we asked them how long they'd had their last phone for before upgrading.
- About two years.
- About a year.
- Must be 8 or 10 years.
- Probably two years.
- About two years.
- I upgraded in January this year to the iPhone 12. Before that I had the Samsung Galaxy 10 for almost a year and a half. Before that I'd had the iPhone 7 for what must have been more like 2 and 1/2 years. When we surveyed which members a couple of years ago, almost half had bought themselves a new mobile phone within the past two years. And 63% within the past three years. At that rate, someone getting their first smartphone at say 14 and living to the UK life expectancy of 81, they'd get through nearly 30 phones in their lifetime.
Next question for you. What did you do with your previous phone? Did you trade it in? Did you recycle it? Or is it in a drawer at home? Because that's where mine are.
- I took it to a mobile phone shop and recycled it.
- Still at home.
- I just gave it to one of my mates.
- Gave it to my daughter.
- It's a great question. I actually got it. I use it as an alarm and stuff.
- Kept it in my junk drawer.
- Ah ha. Someone else with a tech graveyard drawer. Mine has a couple of old laptops in there as well actually alongside my past phones. I think it's mainly because of security. I don't know how to wipe them sufficiently enough myself and I don't want to sell them or recycle them without knowing that my personal data is safe. Perhaps that's done when I recycle them. I just don't know.
But Jeff and I aren't the only ones though. There was a 2019 study by the Royal Society of Chemistry that estimated that as many as 40 million unused gadgets are languishing in UK homes. And in the Which research I mentioned earlier, we found that less than half of those surveyed had never got rid of a mobile phone. Last question then for now. Why did you upgrade to the new phone? Had the old one broken?
- Just had a granddaughter born at the time and I wanted a better camera for taking photos.
- The old one I had was old.
- Sick of being on Apple. I wanted to have a change.
- The battery was shot.
- Now for me looking in that drawer of discarded devices, there is the odd broken screen or laptop key but most would still work. And could I have fixed the slightly broken ones? I mean, I could say I upgraded because I was out of contract. But if I'm being honest with myself and with you, I upgraded because I wanted the next model. But as I found out perhaps I am not the one to blame for that. Some people have suggested that it isn't you or I and our lustful desire for the latest model that are driving this consumer culture. They lay that responsibility on the tech firms claiming that manufacturers knowingly design your tech including your phone to break after a short period of time. Others however, say that's not on the manufacturers. They're simply giving us what we want. And that is what we are discussing today. I'm Greg Foot, and today's Which investigation asks the question, does your phone come with an expiry date?
Which Investigates is a new podcast from the UK's consumer champion. We work to make life simpler, fairer, and safer for everyone. And our mission for this podcast is simple. Find out the facts and see who's actually delivering on the promises we see on packaging or in the press or shared on social media. Our first season is focusing on claims of sustainability from plant based to plastic free, eco travel to electric cars. In this first series, I'll be figuring out what genuinely reduces our environmental footprint and what is simply green washing.
- The traditional business case is constantly pushing the latest device driving customers to buy a new phone with the belief that the next big thing is always just around the corner.
- I hear how your phone may be at risk from hackers.
- We're concerned actually that there's this huge variance in the update support various manufacturers provide. And if you continue to use an unsecure device once support is ceased, you are at risk of phishing attacks. It makes you much more vulnerable.
- And I'm shocked to learn about what can happen to your phone if you do recycle it.
- That is the ultimate destination of your smartphone. They are ground up into dust.
- Plus I'll tell you the story of how a casino was robbed using a fish tank. A report from the German Environment Agency found that mobile phone users are replacing their devices faster than ever before, something their scientists say is ecologically unacceptable. I'd heard a little of the environmental footprint a phone has before, but I thought a good place to start this investigation would be to call a friend of mine, a professor of Materials Science to find out a bit more about what is inside our phones, but also to ask whether he thinks phone manufacturers themselves are to blame for how quickly we discard our devices. Hello, how are you? Thanks for joining us.
- Hi, Greg. Yeah, all right. And you?
- My name is Mark Miodownik I'm Professor of Materials and Society at UCL and director of the Institute of Making.
- I remember seeing a talk of yours where you did this amazing breakdown of what is inside a mobile phone, all the different elements, and where they come from. Would you be so kind as to take me through some of that?
- The modern smartphone which so many people have in their pocket is really a miracle of material science. And it turns out that to do all that we've had to mine almost half of the periodic table. So the periodic table is a list of the chemical elements that exist in the universe that we know of. Each one in individual is about 106 or so. And half of them are in your phone.
- You have to remember that each one of those elements came out of a mine. So you've got stuff coming like copper from Chile, and lithium for the batteries, and you've got stuff coming from China, rare Earth metals, and you've got tungsten and cobalt, cobalt often coming from Africa. You got a gold. There's more gold in a kilo of smartphones than a kilo of gold ore. So these are coming from all over the world. Each of those mines is operated privately, have different needs for water, and that water to wash out these sediments and to get these chemicals out they're often using acids. So actually you can think mining is quite a dirty, it's trying to clean up its act, but it uses a lot of energy, it uses a lot of water, it contaminates the local environment inevitably.
- And all of that to make something that people here in the West tend to chuck away after two and a bit years. How does that make you feel?
- The idea is that most of the stuff that comes into your life is disposable and not designed for long life, not designed for repair, and not designed for recycling. This is the tragedy that you get this incredible piece of technology that's an amazing achievement for humanity. So like a loaf of bread for them. We live privileged lives, don't we?
- It's quite amazing what goes into making a mobile phone. But it's not just its environmental footprint that's concerning. It's also its ethical footprint too. In 2019, Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington D.C. by human rights firm international rights advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The lawsuit was the result of field research conducted by antislavery economist Siddhartha Kara. And it accused the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who it's claimed were working in cobalt mines in the company's supply chain.
Now Mark mentioned cobalt. It's essential in any lithium ion rechargeable battery. The tech companies deny any wrongdoing and in August last year they filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit stating that they did not have quote requisite knowledge of the abuses at the specific mining sites mentioned. Five years earlier, UNICEF reported on a study that revealed around 40,000 children worked in mines across the DMC collecting, sorting, washing, crushing, and transporting minerals. Earning according to an Amnesty International report the equivalent of 1 to 2 US dollars a day. And that was susceptible to exploitation by traders potentially underestimating the weight of their sacs or the grade of the ore.
This is another reason why we need to respect what it takes to make our phones. And another reason why changing phones every couple of years is as the scientists and the German Environment Agency said, ecologically unacceptable. But who is to blame for a phone's short shelf life? Have you heard of this term before?
- Planned obsolescence.
- If not, let's break it down.
- Obsolescence is the states of becoming old fashioned and no longer useful.
- So the question we're asking here is does your phone indeed much of our tech have that obsolescence built into it? Hence the phrase.
- Planned obsolescence. Products that are designed to break after a set period of time that aren't easily serviced or repaired encouraging the user to buy a new often more desirable version.
- This isn't a new idea. Let me tell you a story. The year is 1924. It's the year Marlon Brando and Doris Day are born. The year Ramsay MacDonald is named the UK'S first labour prime minister. And it's the year the Pips are first used on BBC Radio. Across the Atlantic astute businessmen are discussing ways to increase their profit margins.
General Motors executive, Alfred P Sloan Jr. suggests to colleagues they should make minor changes to their cars design each year. The idea being that this would encourage car owners desperate not to miss out on the latest model to replace their current vehicle with the exciting upgrade. And it works. While rival Ford keep their models the same for the simplicity of production, seven years later General Motors surpasses Ford's annual sales. Sloan junior coined a term for this big idea, dynamic obsolescence.
That same year in Geneva, Switzerland a meeting of the main light bulb manufacturers in Europe gave birth to what becomes known as the Phoebus cartel. They want to dominate the world light bulb market for themselves and to do so they establish a standard for the useful life expectancy of light bulbs. 1 and 1/2 to 2,000 hours had been the common life expectancy until then. But they set the standard at just 1,000 hours. And get this, the cartel fines anyone who manufactures bulbs with a longer life. The Phoebus cartel drove a shorter shelf life for light bulbs. Now proof that pre Phoebus bulbs can last longer is still a light in a fire station in Livermore, California. The centennial light bulb has been glowing nonstop since 1981. And it's even got its own webcam if you fancy a look.
A long time has passed since the days of Alfred P. Sloan Jr. and the Phoebus cartel. But the subject of planned obsolescence and whether it's something manufacturers are still doing is more relevant than ever as Mark and I discussed. There's a debate around planned obsolescence and whether that is something that's coming from the manufacturers, from the brands, or whether that's something that's driven by us consumers and our desire for the new model as soon as it comes out. Where do you fall on that? What do you think it is?
- People do like new things. I'm no different. I like a new thing as much as someone else. But I think it is pull in terms of market pull in that sense, but there's an enormous amount of push being forced into it. And part of the forcing you into it is the fact that these devices are not designed to be repaired. And repair isn't being encouraged and the constant changing of the screw types and the ways to get into the phones and the glueing of batteries into a phone. If that's not a technology push of obsolescence, what is?
You know you're going to have to replace a battery. You're buying this incredible state of the art piece of kit which should last you at least 10 years. But you know the battery will start fading within 12 to 24 months. And the manufacturers telling you you can't change the battery. I mean, this is crazy.
- In 2017, Greenpeace published a report of some research that they'd done in partnership with US based repair website, I Fix It. It was called how repairable is your mobile device? And the results, well, they were kind of unsurprising. They said there were--
- Some examples of design for obsolescence where there was no possibility of users replacing commonly failing parts.
- And in fact they highlighted that many brands including the likes of Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft do not make spare parts or repair manuals easily available to us users. Yes, it is possible to send your phone off to one of these manufacturers or a professional third party to get it repaired. But that is pricey. A battery repair that costs what 50, 70 quid? However, our boss Rich did do that with his iPhone 7 and he says he got another 18 months use out of it. But regarding this difficulty, if not impossibility to repair phones ourselves, it sounds like the Greenpeace and i Fix It report suggests planned obsolescence is indeed a thing as does Mark. However, other people disagree.
Journalist and engineer Bob Baddeley wrote a widely shared article on this. In it he tells the story like this. He explains that when mobile phones first arrived, the batteries could be replaced by the owner. The models were bulky though. And when it turned out that people weren't holding onto their phone long enough to replace the battery in the first place, the companies swapped them for skinnier less replaceable ones. Then as Mark said, they removed the screws from phones opting for glue instead.
But Bob says, that was done to cut costs for us consumers. Plus it gave us the added bonus of sexier looking phones. Those are my words, not Bob's by the way. All this leads him to conclude that the blame doesn't lie at the feet of the tech firms. It sits squarely on the shoulders of us consumers. He says, quote, "it wasn't a conspiracy to make phones obsolete more quickly, it was a direct response to different demands that made compromises necessary." So he's saying the tech firms were just responding to our needs and that's led to unfixable phones, perhaps phones we wouldn't even want to fix.
Well, I put that to Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the Restart Project, a group who organised restart parties that bring people together to fix their broken devices.
- I think it's very shortsighted to think that the majority of people don't want things to be repaired. Data we've seen from research done by the Green Alliance shows that 75% of the UK population would like the government to require manufacturers to make products easier to be repaired. Based on the people queuing at our community repair events and the frustrations we see in them, I can certainly tell you that plenty of people would like to be able to repair more. And unfortunately, they're frustrated by how expensive at times it is and how hard is it and how certain faults can't be fixed.
- Since Restart Parties began in 2013, they say they've prevented over 25,000 kilogrammes of waste, which is equivalent to the CO2 emitted by driving over three million kilometres or manufacturing more than 60 new cars. It is very tricky to open up and fix or get replacement parts for most models of modern smartphone. But there is one brand whose USP is its repair ability.
- Thanks for inviting me.
- Where are you in the world right now?
- I'm in Amsterdam.
- Oh, lovely. My name is Monique Lempers. I'm director impact innovation at Fairphone.
- So tell me about Fairphone.
- Fairphone is a smartphone social enterprise. And it has a very clear mission. It has a mission to inspire the industry to act more responsibly. And it wants to do that by showing that there's a market for a more ethical, more sustainable phone. It's built to last. It has a modular design to make it easier for the customer to repair the phone.
- Each part of the phone, the battery, the camera, the speaker, the screen, et cetera, it can be easily removed if it breaks. And you can get a replacement and just slot that back in.
- And it's also designed in a way that it enables upgrades. You can open your phone, you can take out your old camera, and you can plug-in your new camera. Close it. Turn it on again and it works. And the old camera you can send back to us.
- Why does this feel like such a revolutionary idea when in a way it feels so obvious?
- I think it has to do with that it is challenging the traditional business case. Constantly pushing the latest device, getting your income, your revenue from selling phones rather than stretching the lifetime of phones. And enabling it to last as long as possible.
- Which is exactly what Fairphone are doing. It's well worth a look into them. I'll put a link to our Fairphone review in the show notes. I had a much longer chat with Monique and with Mark too. And we'll put those long form interviews out in their entirety in the future some time. So keep an eye on the podcast feed for those. Also I'd love to know what you think about this. Do you think that your phone is designed to fail? If it isn't, it's clear how difficult it is to fix it when it does break. So do you think we consumers have ourselves to blame for this? Or do you think it's the tech companies who are holding the strings and we're just they're puppets? Get in touch on social to let me know. I'm @gregfoot and we're @whichUK.
Now though I want to tell you about the final part of my investigation. It's a worrying area of obsolescence that I definitely don't think that we can take the blame for. And it's one that could be affecting your online safety. First though, another story. And it's the one about how some hackers robbed a casino using a fish tank.
In 2017, a Vegas Casino had just installed a new smart fish tank. Smart because it had sensors that helped it autonomously clean and regulate the temperature and feed the fish. Smart because it was connected to the internet and it allowed its owners to remotely monitor it. However, not smart because that internet connection could be hacked. And once in, the hackers could then get into other areas of the Casino's network.
Although the Casino's name and the type of data stolen was never disclosed in the threat report by intelligent experts Dark Trace, they do say it was 10 gigabytes worth of files and it was the only time a Casino system had ever sent data 5,500 miles away from Vegas to Finland. Let this tale serve as a Warning though with more and more internet connected devices, keep your eyes out for any fishy behaviour. Sorry, as hack investigators from Dark Trace said at the time though.
- Many of the connected devices for sale today are seriously lacking when it comes to security. They're under constant attack from the moment they're hooked up to the internet and can fall under hacker control within minutes.
- OK. So if you have a smart fish tank, the chances of you being hacked are slim. But your mobile phone, that's a different matter. Can you just say my name is and then give you a full name and give the title that you want to be using.
- Yeah. Just like I've got now.
- Hi, I'm Chris Owen and I'm a senior policy advisor at Which.
- Perfect. Now Chris, let's talk phone safety. With the amount of data that our phones hold they're absolute gold mines for hackers. Right? Any small holes in software are normally plugged when manufacturers send out regular security updates. But you have found that those updates dry up.
- For the last year or so, we've been looking at software updates for smartphones. We're concerned actually that there's this huge variance in their updates support that manufacturers provide. And it can range from Apple typically providing five to six years of support all the way down to some manufacturers providing two years maximum. We're concerned because the lack of update support is making devices prematurely obsolete.
- So I was really surprised to hear that because although on average people switch up their phones every two and a bit years, you're saying that some security updates can be as short as two years from the launch of the phone and that will be even less if you don't buy it on the day that it launches. So what's the danger? Where does that leave us?
- If you continue to use an unsecured device once support ceased, you're at risk of things like hacking, your data being lost, phishing attacks that it makes you much more vulnerable to a lot of the security risks there are other.
- Phishing is just one way of being hacked and having your personal data stolen. It's when someone masquerades as a trusted source to try to bait you to give your personal data perhaps a password or bank info. So what is Which doing about this security update issue, Chris?
- We are actively campaigning on behalf of consumers in the space. The governments have recently announced a bill which will make it mandatory for retailers and manufacturers to stipulate how long support will be provided for smartphones at the point of sale. But we don't think that goes far enough from what we're influencing the bill to include a mandated minimum period of five years.
- And Which has also launched a simple security update check it all on our website. You just select your handset and it will tell you how long your device is going to have security updates supported for. We'll put a link to that phone support calculator in the show notes. You can also find full sources for this investigation and links to further reading there too. Why do manufacturers put a stop on the security updates? Are they doing it to drive us to buy the next model? Because if we don't know that's what they're doing, surely that can't be a driver. So their choice is leaving us exposed.
- Yeah. That's a really good question. And from our research we think it's a combination of the marketing techniques, influencing consumers to buy the latest model, manufacturers not providing longer support periods because they're not required to by law, and also consumers not really knowing about the importance of updates.
- Well hopefully this podcast will have told a few more people. I know that in light of these security update concerns, we're also changing the way that we review mobile phones here at Which. Right?
- Yes. So at Which we're starting to change the way we approach our reviews and our recommendations. Update support is a key factor in product safety and longevity. What Which has recently done is looked at how we review smartphones and we've actively taken away best buy recommendations from devices that are no longer supported or actually have less than a year of support.
- Yes. So once a phone's security updates have stopped, Which is to use a security notice at the top of the review. And, as you say, our best buys won't include any device suspected to have less than a year of support left. Thank you so much for your time, Chris. I've got one last big realisation to share with you about updates. You heard Monique from Fairphone say how they want their phones to last consumers many, many years. And of course, they want to ensure the phones have active security updates throughout their life. But she explained to me why not having that isn't simply a case of manufacturers deciding to not upgrade software, it's more complicated than that.
- It's really difficult to upgrade software. For example, if you have a specific chipset, a chipset, for example, that is dependent on Android that is only supported for three years. And the two entities have different business agendas. So this whole system keeps each other in a mode of short life cycles. We have been able to upgrade software far beyond two or three years. But this was really challenging for us to do so because we had to find workarounds. Like the support we get from our chipset manufacturer supports that is provided up to three years and not be on from Android. So it is indeed the start of business proposition that are not built on longevity that we need to challenge.
- So does your phone come with an expiry date? And bonus question to tackle in a second, what should we do about all this? The research supports what we already know that lots of phones only get a short run before they're broken in a way that can't easily be fixed or before someone succumbs to a higher spec upgrade. And that often leads to an ultimately repairable or perfectly functioning phone going into the tech graveyard drawer. Whether a phone short shelf-life comes from an expiry date set by manufacturers or whether they're making engineering choices that are driven by consumer need or desire, jury is still out.
However, the fact that some security updates stop whilst most of us are still using our phones, that's on manufacturers. Although it sounds like it's not as easy as simply turning the dial from turn off in two years to turn off in five, but it is possible. This investigation showed the significant environmental and ethical footprint of each phone we hold in our hand. And that makes me feel like we should be doing much more to respect that. As the Restart Project website says--
- If we used every mobile phone sold this year for just one third longer, we could prevent the yearly greenhouse gas emissions of a country like Singapore.
- Wowsers. Finally then what should we do with phones that do break beyond repair?
- So some charities take the phones and they realise they have a second life in countries that would value them more. And they send them there. And they get either reused there or they get translated into parts for use. But otherwise, they'll just be ground into dust. And a few minerals will be extracted like gold, but everything else will just end up in landfill.
- Yes, your jaw is probably dropped now too. As Mark said earlier, there's more gold in a kilo of smartphones than a kilo of gold ore. So often recycling in quotes can simply mean grinding it up. Or alternatively as Monique told me--
- You can only extract around 30% of the raw materials and the rest is still burned.
- So what should we do?
- Really try to take some time and go through your drawers and see if there's anything that you think that is still valuable to send to a recycler or sent back to the producer even if you think if it's five years old, 10 years old, send it back. And then secondly, try to not be too much seduced by the next big thing because the next big thing is often not so big.
- Personally then I'm going to hang onto this phone for longer than I have previous ones. I will look to send it to get repaired where possible. And when it is no longer fixable, I'll wipe it and I'll give it to a charity who can use it for parts. And for any future phone I'll make sure it's got security updates for a long, long life. And ideally it needs to be repairable and upgradeable too.
- These trillion companies, they're using you as a cash cow because of your ignorance I think. And I feel like we should push back. If you think about innovation less as I want it to be able to fit in my back pocket and be slightly lighter and to be a slightly tintier shade of pink. If you think of innovation as environmental innovation, we want these things to be durable, repairable, upgradable. Surely upgradable is an innovation, but it isn't one that they think customers are interested in.
- Let's tell them we are. The thing is, this is about more than our phones. It's about all our tech. As the chairman of the environmental audit committee wrote last year, quote, for too long companies like Amazon and Apple have been dodging their environmental responsibilities for the products they sell. Too many devices sold and made by these companies have a limited and sometimes decreasing lifespan and end up in bins, eventually going to landfill or incineration. There is no chance of precious metals being retrieved, which has quickly become a huge problem as the rare and disappearing materials are crucial for renewable energy such as wind turbines, solar panels, and electric car batteries. And electric car batteries are one area we are going to be touching on in our next Which investigation, which will be asking, how green really is an electric car?
If you enjoyed this podcast, please do rate and review us wherever you get yours. More episodes are on their way so follow us to catch them all and if you've got something you'd like us to investigate in the future, get in touch. I'm @gregfoot and Which is @whichUK on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Here at Which we're making sustainability key to what we do from how we assess the products and services we review to the way we run our whole organisation. That's why this first season of Which investigates is dedicated to helping you make the sustainable choices you've told us are so important.
We've got new reviews and advice every day on Which.co.UK that will give you the power to make the best decisions for you and the planet. Then if you want to make the most of your money with everyday personal finance tips, then why not have a listen to our sister show the Which Money Podcast.
Today's episode was written and presented by me, Greg Foot, produced by me and Rob Lilly, edited by Eric Brear and our executive producer is Angus Farquhar. Special thanks go to Richard Headland, Michael Briggs, Emily Seymour, Yvette Fletcher, and Aaron West. I'll see you next time.