My first cell phone was an LG three-inch silver flip mobile. At age thirteen, I proudly pounded out 250 texts/month on my cutting-edge T9 keyboard, but was flat-out envious of my younger sister’s 1.3 megapixel camera-phone. Oh, the injustice! My sole consolation for this grievous inequality was my phone’s hallmark feature: a bold, quarter-sized mirror on its metallic front cover. Take that, camera-phone owners. Who needs selfies?


Since my junior high years, the tech universe has evolved at light-speed pace. With each development, the entire world has shifted to produce, promote, and consume new gadgets, bots, and mobile devices. Then came 2007—when Apple changed everything.

The first Apple iPhone was unlike any device a consumer or investor had ever seen. Like switching from bronze to iron, the iPhone inaugurated a new era. According to Tech Crunch’s 2017 findings, Apple sold 78.3 million iPhones in Q1 alone, and iMore reports that 700 million iPhones have been sold since its release in 2007. These astronomical figures do not include other major smartphone producers such as Samsung and Sony, whose total 2016 unit sales (combined with Apple) amount to 1.5 billion smartphones worldwide.

The industry is massive, but what do we know about what goes into our pocket encyclopedia and constant companion? The dangerous reality is that most end users know next-to-nothing about the mining, production processes, and supply chains that they buy into through buying a smartphone. In fact, all we know for certain is that we want the newest one.




Over 40 materials are required to build the basic elements of a smartphone, all of which require mining and processing before assembly. For each one of these elements and for every step in a smartphone’s supply chain, social injustices and environmental destruction abound.

Cobalt is one of numerous mined materials required for manufacturing smartphones. Last year, Amnesty International published This is What We Die For, a landmark study that exposed human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where children as young as seven work as cobalt miners. Through their research, Amnesty discovered that child miners carry loads weighing approximately 40 to 90 lbs (20 to 40 kg), and work for up to 12 hours/day only to earn approximately $1-2/day. Sometimes the children work all day without food, and they often fall ill. Since most DRC cobalt miners do not have masks to protect them from the substances they encounter, many suffer from a potentially fatal disease called metal lung disease: a condition caused by inhaling cobalt dust. 80 deaths were reported between 2014-2015, yet Amnesty discovered that most fatalities go unreported and that many bodies are “just left buried underground.”  

Amnesty argues that our smartphones’ production very likely involve child labor, since over 50% of the world’s cobalt is sourced from the DRC, approximately 20% of the world’s cobalt is extracted through Artisanal and Small-scale mining (a practice involving low-end machinery), and 40,000 children work in the DRC cobalt mining region.

"The glamorous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage.” - Mark Dummett, Amnesty International

Supply chains involving the DRC are also often plagued by conflict sourcing; an added level of complexity in the DRC and beyond. Yet even when materials are fairly sourced, human rights abuses can occur in the production stage. Hazardous working conditions, low pay, extreme overtime, and inability to unionize have all been reported at China-based smartphone factories, including Apple’s Foxconn factory in a 2012 New York Times exposé and Apple’s Pegatron factory in a 2014 BBC undercover study. After a 2016 Bloomberg visit to the Pegatron factory, Bloomberg noted improvements in overtime tracking and working conditions. Despite these reforms, the journalist could not forget having caught glimpses of safety netting “to prevent accidents—or suicide attempts.” Today, smartphone manufacturing conditions remain nebulous in more ways than one.



Excavating smartphone materials leads to water pollution, soil pollution, and radioactive waste in mining regions. Cobalt, copper, indium, nickel, and zinc mines are responsible for the highest amounts of water and soil pollution, and alumunium, dysprosium (rare earth), neodymium, niobium, praseodymium, tantalum, tin, and yttrium mining processes generate the highest amounts of radioactive waste. Mining can also lead to severe levels of deforestation, such as in the case of Bangka and Belitung. These two Indonesian islands supply approximately 33% of the world’s tin, a material used in smartphone construction. In recent years, tin mining has already caused acidification in the islands’ aquifers, and activists are concerned that if mining continues to expand at its present rate, the islands’ once-thriving forests will become arid regions.

Though smartphones retail at prices exceeding $600, it’s no secret that they are not built for undying service over many years. Often, a smartphone lasts only 2-3 years before starting to wane in its efficacy (and one day black-screening irreversible). Whether functioning or not, when it’s replaced by a new smartphone, where does ‘Old Faithful’ end up? While recycling is considered the responsible approach, many forget that the law of diminishing returns is the central actor in the smartphone recycling process.

Metal materials are combined within a smartphone much like water, coffee, milk, and sugar are combined within a cup of coffee (analogy provided via United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report). Just as separating milk from coffee takes energy, separating metal materials and restoring each to its usable form requires energy and natural resources. Recycling an old smartphone is inefficient because it depletes resources at every stage of the recycling process. Even worse, some recycling companies send phones to developing countries as ‘second hand goods’ to be opened manually by workers who are exposed to the toxic substances inside the mobile devices. According to Shop Ethical, these substances include mercury, cadmium, and lead.



Though you may feel powerless against complex supply chains marred by child labor, violence, and environmental destruction, we can make a difference. Take these five steps to advocate for smartphones with both intelligence and heart.

  1. Make It Last: Planning for longevity is best thing you can do to push back against smartphone-related waste and exploitation. When your smartphone starts to act a bit wonky, take it to a repair shop. Pay for a new screen, rather than buying a new phone altogether. Resist the urge to have that snazzy new phone. Check out pro-tips from the EPA on prolonging the life of your smartphone here.
  2. Think Circular: If your phone is not fully functional, you might still be able to use it as an MP3 player, home security camera, or handheld gaming device! Get creative, and see more tips from ABC here.

    If you cannot use the phone for any home purpose, try selling it online or donating it to a charity. If all else fails, bring it to a center or a tech firm such as Amazon, Best Buy, or Sprint. Before you do, check out the resources on the 2017 Consumer Report “How to Recycle Old Electronics” here.
  3. Shop Recycled or Refurbished: When the time comes to find a new phone, opt for a used or recycled smartphone. Craigslist, Ebay, Gumtree, Best Buy, Amazon, and many other phone retailers are all great resources for finding used or refurbished tech products.
  4. Buy a FairphoneFairphone researcher Bibi Bleekemolen is transparent about Fairphone’s ethical standards. When asked if the smartphone was sourced 100% ethically, Bleekemolen replied, “That would be nearly impossible.” That being said, Fairphone is unequivocally the most fair smartphone on the market.

    The Netherlands-based brand has partnered with Dragonfly Initiative (as well as Solutions for Hope and Fairtrade Max Havelaar Netherlands for other operations) to determine the 10 smartphone materials whose supply chains should be engaged first in order to ‘deliver the greatest social and environmental impact’ based on criteria ranging from consumer electronics industry consumption to association with serious health problems to association with significant biodiversity threats. Based on their research, the 10 materials that Fairphone decided to focus on are tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold, cobalt, copper, gallium, indium, nickel, and rare earth metals. The Fairphone contains recycled plastic, copper, and tungsten, and the phones are designed with a modular structure in order to prolong their lifespan to five years rather than two. The brand is determined to continuously build upon its model in order to positively impact supply chains worldwide and to refine its own design construction. When it comes to purchasing a new smartphone, Fairphone is a pioneering enterprise whose aims I support!
  5. Make a Fuss About It: Amnesty International, FairGold, and Earthworks provide in-depth educational resources, studies, and practical action steps related to mining reform. Following their 2016 study on cobalt mining, the Amnesty has encouraged supporters to contact tech brands via social media with questions like, “@tim cook, Tell me if my phone was powered by #childlabour.”


Ask questions. Talk to brands. Speak to your friends and family. Write a blog post. Tweet. In particular, asking tech companies for supply chain data can prompt investigations and audits, and can ultimately lead to supply chain reform. Make a fuss! (To learn more about Amnesty’s work and how you can get involved, visit their campaign page here.)

Written by Savannah DiMarco


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