The story of my cell phone
My cell phone is something that I use daily. The alarm wakes me up in the morning, the note pad helps me with my grocery list, the message feature allows me to text family and friends, the address book contains my key contacts, and the call feature keeps me safe in emergencies. To me, my cell phone is a tool for the job. I would never consider waxing poetic about my attachment to an inanimate object. Yet, here I am quietly reflecting on the significance of having a cell phone in my life.
In the early days of owning one I discovered that I would have to adopt new habits. I bought a Bluetooth so I could use my phone hands free, I bought a car charger so the battery wouldn’t die while I was on the road, I even started choosing purses that had a special pocket for cell phones. My cell phone was now my constant companion.
For the longest time, I continued a daily relationship with my cell phone and life was good. Then it began…more advanced cell phones were being released to the public; I started receiving messages from my service provider that I qualified for an upgraded model; my friends started trading in their old ones for newer models even though the older models still worked. I was surrounded by pressure to upgrade yet I stubbornly clung to my old device. When the phone began to fail, the time for a replacement was upon me. The coincidental circumstances of my phone failing about the same time that my contract was up for renewal were not lost on me. I remember being irritated and thinking that the phone’s failure was by design.
After much research, deliberation, and soul searching, I chose a newer version of the model I had even though it was considered antiquated by industry standards. I stubbornly stuck to my decision to keep a similar model for several reasons. Firstly, I was familiar with the features and functionality; secondly, it felt a little like betrayal of an old friend to switch to something completely different; and finally, I resented the implication of being relegated to a lower social status if I didn’t choose a more recent model.
My decision to stick with a similar model probably says a lot about who I am. I am cautious of untested technology, I am loyal, and I’m a bit rebellious. I had decided that I was not going to jump into technology that I did not understand and I was certainly not interested in abandoning a tried and true model for a fancier and flashier one because I equated choosing a newer model with abandoning old friends for a new boyfriend – that is where the loyalty part comes in. Really, I did not owe the older model anything. After all, it was just a tool for the job, or so I thought. Having said all that, the phone I carry with me today could be described as a symbol of rebellion. Yes, I own a flip phone. What was once a tool for the job has now become a symbol of status.
The convenience and practicality of a flip phone has been relegated by popular culture to be used by the poor, the elderly, and criminals. Steve Garbarino (2013) refutes this perception in his article that intimates a resurgence of the flip phone. Garbarino argues that flip phones still have value and are still used by prominent figures in sports, fashion, film, and finance for utilitarian reasons (tool for the job). Garbarino (2014) himself admits to carrying both a smartphone and a flip phone and suggests that there is a new movement under-foot. Some folks are even stockpiling these devices (Weiss, 2014). The fact that these prominent figures acknowledge the benefits of a flip phone is cause to pause and reflect on the cell phone as a device versus a status symbol. So began my investigation into the company that makes my cell phone – Samsung.
The background of my cell phone
When it comes of the sale of mobile devices, Samsung is the leader of the pack and is followed by Nokia and Apple respectively (Kiselicki, 2014). Kiselicki acknowledges that Apple and Samsung have sustainability programs in place however “the core problem is that the industry assesses and reacts to environmental impact in a limited fashion, beginning and concluding with the production process, as well as a simple life-cycle assessment of the product” (p 72-73). Upon deeper investigation, Kiselicki discovered that Samsung ranked seventh place out of ten regarding sustainable practices with Nokia ranking third and Apple ranking sixth.
Kiselicki’s findings certainly put Samsung’s company profile and sustainability report into perspective. The company profile mentions competitive threats (for example: dependence on Android, patent litigations, and intense competition) and has identified Nokia as a top competitor (MarketLine, 2015). Apple is not mentioned. The SWOT analysis boasts Samsung’s research and development (R&D) capabilities yet contains little mention of sustainability. Samsung maintains that it is committed to minimizing negative impacts to the environment at all levels – production facilities, raw materials acquisition, and disposal phases (2015 Sustainability Report). An example of their commitment can be found in their program to take discarded cell phones and combine them with photovoltaic panels to make a ‘mobile solar-powered projector’ (p 105). Another example is a program in Hungary that rewards students for returning their old cell phones in exchange for credits (points). Students can either use these points to purchase electronic products made by Samsung or to purchase stationery items.
These initiatives sound great on the surface but there are other programs that could be leveraged as well. Initiatives like Fairphone (aimed at eliminating the charger that accompanies a new phone) and Phonebloks (replaceable, upgradeable components) are adding pressure to larger cell phone companies to think of production and disposal in new ways (Kiselicki, 2014). I was surprised at my sense of relief when the store offered to dispose of my old phone. When I asked the store what would happen to my old phone, they said that they would try to repair it and then donate it. Failing that, the phone would be stripped for salvageable parts and the remainder would be recycled. I was satisfied that I had done my part for the environment by asking what would happen to it. Little did I realize that cell phones contain a multitude of chemicals and elements that needed to be dealt with. Environmental waste from electronics, also known as WEEE (waste electronic and electrical equipment) or e-waste is an issue that affects us all and we, as consumers, have the power to influence manufacturers of cell phones by demanding take-back systems and demonstrating environmentally responsible purchasing behaviours (Babayemi, J. O., Osibanjo, O., and Weber, R., 2014).
Samsung’s Sustainability Report mainly focuses on eco-friendly packaging and materials. With 36 Research and Development (R&D) centres around the world, the goal of these centres is to predict future consumer needs and develop products to meet those needs. In essence, their function is to create something we don’t know we need yet. Taking this goal one step further, it could be said that they are in the business of planned obsolescence. For a company that was established in 1969 and consists of 3 divisions: consumer electronics (CE), information technology & mobile communications (IM), and device solutions (DS) which are subdivided into subsidiaries that are distributed across 213 offices around the globe (Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. 2014 Business Report, n.d.), there is a lot at stake.
Samsung’s Headquarters is located in Suwon, Korea and they have 320,000 employees in 84 countries. Samsung delivered sales of KRW206.2 trillion (KRW = Korean Republic Won) and earned KRW25 trillion in operating profits in 2014. Samsung expects to reach 77% market penetration for mobile phones by end of 2015 (Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. CEO Message, n.d.) and they are the producers of Galaxy branded products. A company of this size and economy of scale has an opportunity to radically influence environmentally friendly manufacturing and disposal of its products. We as consumers, must demand such practices and not succumb to targeted marketing. As more and more people acquire cell phones, it would be advantageous for Samsung to lead the charge instead of waiting for government imposed legislation.
I plan to keep my flip phone model for as long as possible. I will continue to encourage people to reconsider whether they need the latest and greatest model and to be thoughtful regarding the disposal of their old devices. I know that the next phone I get will have functions and features that are leaps and bounds ahead of the model I have today. If I wait long enough, someone may come up with a flip phone/smartphone hybrid. Perhaps then, I’ll have both a tool for the job and an elevated social status.
Babayemi, J. O., Osibanjo, O., & Weber, R. (2014). Assessment of use, reuse, and end-of-life disposal and X-Ray fluorescence analysis screening of waste mobile phones in Nigeria. Environmental Quality Management, 23(4), 1-12. doi:10.1002/tqem.21372
Garbarino, S. (2013, December 7). Flipping for Flip Phones?. Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition. p. D10
Garbarino, S. (2014, November). It takes two cellphones to tango. Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition. p. D11
Kiselicki, M. (2014). Reducing electronic and environmental waste through commercially sustainable mobile devices. Journal of Sustainable Development (1857-8519), 5(11), 71-90
Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.. (2014). 2014 Sustainability report. (accessed on July 5, 2015 from http://www.samsung.com/us/aboutsamsung/sustainability/sustainabilityreports/download/2015/SAMSUNG_SUSTAINABILITY_REPORT_2015_ENG.pdf )
Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.. (2014). 2014 Business report. (accessed July 5, 2015 from http://www.samsung.com/us/aboutsamsung/investor_relations/financial_information/business_report.html )
Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.. (n.d). Company profile. MarketLine. Retrieved on July 5, 2015 from James A. Gibson Library Brock University, Company Information
Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.. (n.d). CEO message. (accessed July 5, 2015 from http://www.samsung.com/us/aboutsamsung/investor_relations/ceomessage/ )
Weiss, T. R. (2014). Flip Phone Simplicity Again Gets Attention From Some Users. Eweek, 1