It's not just the inflexible contracts and intransparent user agreements that make the average mobile network unsustainable. The telecommunications industry actually represents a significant share of global carbon emissions too. In the UK, Honest Mobile, a new carbon neutral, tree planting mobile network, wants to change that, by putting people and planet first.
As smartphones become more ubiquitous across the globe, so too does their impact on the environment. Part of this is to do with the unethical way that they are produced and also the rate at which we are trading our devices in for newer models, leading to increasing amounts of e-waste. However, their impact does not end there. Every single byte of data sent and received by your smartphone smartphone also leaves a digital carbon footprint.
This is something UK-based mobile network operator, Honest Mobile, is looking to change. Currently, it is the UK’s only carbon neutral mobile network, meaning it offsets all the carbon produced by its users’ phone calls, text messages, data usage and even charging. Working in conjunction with the NGO, On A Mission, Honest Mobile collates the monthly carbon emissions of its activities and offsets these via sustainable reforestation projects. It also donates one percent of its revenue to further reforestation projects in order to help offset some of its customers’ everyday carbon emissions.
As a result, Honest Mobile has become the UK’s first mobile phone company to be certified as a B Corp. This means it has achieved a minimum B Impact score which rates companies on its social and environmental impact. In addition to carbon offsetting, Honest Mobile also uses recycled packaging, encourages users to purchased refurbished phones, pays a fair living wage to its employees and uses existing infrastructure as opposed to constructing new mobile masts for its service.
Transparent, fair and flexible contracts
The company has also strived to create a fairer, more transparent relationship between users and providers within the mobile phone sector. Users with Honest Mobile will be informed if moving to a cheaper tariff is beneficial for them, while they can also save money with loyalty schemes. This approach is designed to differ from the more draconian contracts of the major phone networks, which often tie down users in lengthy, expensive contracts that are difficult to leave. As a result, Honest Mobile has a Trustpilot score of 4.6 out of 5, while most of the other major phone operators, such as Virgin, O2 and Vodafone, languish around the 1-2 mark.
In 2020, there were an estimated 3.5 billion smartphones in use around the world - accounting for roughly half of the world’s population. Collectively, these users generate 40.77 exabytes - or 40770000 terabytes - of digital information annually, with this number expected to double by 2022.
The environmental impact of our smartphones
All this information needs to be stored and transmitted through somewhere, and usually that is a large data centre containing rows upon rows of computer servers. All of these servers generate an extensive amount of heat, the cooling of which comes with massive energy demands. As a result, mobile phone technology is expected to use 20 percent of the world’s electricity and generate 5.5 percent of its carbon emissions by 2025. There have been some ingenious approaches to reducing this energy footprint, including using artificial intelligence to optimise and reduce data centres' energy use, and constructing data centres in naturally cold locations, but for the most part they continue to be powered by conventional electricity - and use huge amounts of it.
Additional environmental burden comes from the sheer number of phones in circulation. Major phone manufactuers, such as Apple and Samsung, release new models extremely often, while simultaneously abandoning legacy support for older models that are still function reasonably well. This results in a situation where phones are simply left lying around in people's homes, despite being operational. According to a Greenpeace survey, on average each smartphone user has at least three phones at home, with very few recycling or repairing older models. The same survey suggested around half of respondents felt new models were released too frequently and recycling solutions should be made more available.
Perhaps due to this increased environmental awareness, other major phone networks have started to pledge themselves to reaching carbon neutral or net zero status in the future. O2 and Vodafone hope to reach net zero - which includes reducing other harmful emissions as well as carbon - by 2025 and 2050 respectively. Other major networks, such as 3 and EE have made promises to reduce their environmental impact, but without issuing any particular goals or deadlines.
For their part, Honest Mobile hopes to continue its journey and eventually become a zero carbon company, as opposed to simply carbon neutral. In the case of carbon zero companies, the emissions are not offset but are simply not produced in the first place. Obviously, this entails a greater commitment to using only renewable energy sources, as well recycling, across every area of the company's operations.