Kompass Nachhaltigkeit

Öffentliche Beschaffung

Mobile phones

Social and ecological risks in the supply chain of mobile phones

What you should take into consideration when purchasing mobile phones

More than 20 million smartphones are sold in Germany – every single year. Amongst the buyers are municipalities that procure mobile phones for their employees. Although cities and municipalities operate dedicated collection points where people can hand in their e-waste, around 200 million mobile phones languish unused in homes across the country.

However, these devices contain many raw materials which, if recycled, could help reduce global mineral extraction and thus help protect the environment. What is more, the extractive industries are rife with reports of labour and human rights abuses. This also applies to the production of mobile phones across widely extended supply chains. The upshot: The fewer new mobile phones purchases, the better. Furthermore, it is important to optimise their usage from an energy efficiency perspective.

Public procurement can generate important incentives for more sustainable production while also pioneering the long-term use, repair, collection and recycling of mobile phones

Further Information

For general information on integrating sustainability into the procurement process, see here.

An online tool to assess the local human rights situation by "Helpdesk Business & Human Rights" is available here.

Municipal best practice examples of sustainable procurements of mobile phones, see here (German only).

Further information on mobile phones (in German):

General advice: For mobile phones, supply chain risks are similar to those in the produktion of computers/IT hardware. We therefore recommend the video about computers (in German) an the relevant information provided.

Supply chain risks of mobile phones in detail

Supply chain in detail

Click on the individual stages in the information graphic on the left to learn more about the ecological and social risks when purchasing mobile phones.

01 Extraction

More than 60 different raw materials are needed to make a mobile phone. And many more metals lie hidden beneath the plastic, glass and ceramic casings and behind the aluminium and indium displays, amongst them: gold, cobalt and lithium for batteries, gallium for the camera and coltan for the capacitor. The extraction of these and other raw materials entails numerous environmental, social and human rights risks. Examples include:

Environmental risks

  • Waste, toxins and other residues that contaminate the air, soil and water 
  • Release of radioactive substances during rare earth extraction
  • Greenhouse gases and sulphur dioxide emissions 
  • High energy consumption
  • High water consumption
  • Risk of dam or dike failures allowing contaminated sludge from mineral extraction to flood the surrounding areas
  • Loss of land, increasing deforestation and blasting of mountains
  • Negative impacts on biodiversity

Social risks

  • Funding of conflicts/armed groups through minerals extraction and trading (conflict minerals)
  • Displacement of people from their homes, cropland and pastureland
  • Noise and vibration from industrial plant operations and dust dispersion due to intensive use of heavy-duty vehicles
  • Corruption and tax evasion
  • Violent suppression of protests
  • Human trafficking, forced labour and child labour
  • Violation of the right to free assembly and the right to collective bargaining
  • Lack of workplace accident protection and insufficient safety standards  

Further reading (in German)

02 Production

Metals are made from ores, plastic from crude oil: Stage two of the value chain processes raw materials, turning metals, plastics and other components into so-called ‘intermediate goods’ and ‘semi-finished products’. This includes cables, circuit boards or processors. Substances that are harmful to health are used in many stages of processing, including heavy metals like cadmium and lead or carcinogenic solvents like benzene, the use of which has long been banned in the EU. The semi-conductor industry in particular uses between 500 and 1,000 different chemicals, many of which are highly noxious.

Further processing also often involves environmental and social risks. Examples include:

Environmental risks

  • Waste, toxins and other residues that contaminate the air, soil and water
  • Greenhouse gas and sulphur dioxide emissions 
  • High energy consumption
  • High water consumption

Social risks

  • Displacement of people from their homes, cropland and pastureland
  • Noise and vibration from industrial plant operations and dust dispersion due to intensive use of heavy-duty vehicles
  • Corruption or tax evasion
  • Violation of the right to free assembly and the right to collective bargaining
  • Underpaid workers
  • Lack of workplace accident protection and insufficient safety standards  
  • Negative health impacts due to use of noxious substances

Further reading (in German)

03 Processing

Mobile phone manufacturers profit from outsourcing production. In keeping with the logic of ‘downward competition’, production often takes place where human rights and social and environmental standards are at their lowest. While big companies in industrialised countries get the lion’s share of the profit, mobile phone assembly is mostly left to factories in East and Southeast Asia. Mobile phone production is a branch of industry known for its extremely precarious employment conditions. So-called ‘flexible on-demand production’ forms part of a business model that fosters the abuse of what are already low environmental and social requirements. For example, without proper safety gear, the use of chemicals like n-hexane for cleaning glass screens can chronically impact the central nervous system, triggering correspondingly serious illnesses.

Examples of negative impacts include:

Environmental risks

  • High energy consumption
  • High materials consumption
  • High levels of water consumption and land use
  • Inadequate treatment of wastewater
  • Generation of hazardous and non-hazardous waste
  • Toxins and other residues, including dust-particle formation, that contaminate the air, soil and water

Social risks

  • Violation of the right to free assembly and the right to collective bargaining
  • Workers are underpaid and have short-term contracts; temporary employment; virtually no leave entitlements; extended working hours (up to 80h a week); unpaid overtime
  • Child and forced labour as well as ‘debt slavery’ of migrant workers
  • Lack of safety standards
  • Adverse health effects due to lack of lighting and air conditioning or lack of ventilation in the production areas
  • Adverse health effects due to contact with toxic chemicals
  • Fatigue and strain due to monotonous assembly line work in a static posture
  • Environmental and social standards are not monitored consistently or companies actively block such activities

Further reading

04 Consumption

In terms of their energy balance, mobile phones consume the largest proportion of energy and resources during manufacture. In comparison with other electronic devices, a mobile phone itself does not consume much energy, even if used intensively. However, energy consumption levels are significantly higher in the infrastructure needed to transmit data. It is also worth noting that mobile data transfer uses considerably more energy than a wireless connection.

The carbon footprint can be minimised during the phone’s service life, essentially by using the device for as many years as possible. Thus, at the procurement stage already, it is important to make sure the battery can be exchanged and to check whether, and to what extent, the device can be repaired and how long it will remain eligible for software updates. Never agree to the delivery of any chargers, headsets or adapters etc. when purchasing new devices, as these are often already available. The Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) value is an indicator of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by a mobile phone and thus its level of impact on the human body. Where possible, the SAR should be less than 0.6W/kg.

Numerous negative environmental and social impacts occur during usage, including:

Environmental risks

  • Energy consumption, especially by data transfer infrastructure
  • Resource consumption, especially from excessive packaging materials and the unsolicited supply of battery chargers and adapters etc.
  • Resource wastage due to the premature sale rather than repair of mobile phones

Social risks

  • Potentially harmful effect on health due to electromagnetic radiation with high SAR values
  • Data protection

Further reading (in German)

05 Recycling & Disposal

Waste from electric and electronic appliances – which includes mobile phones – constitutes one of the fastest growing streams of waste in the world. And yet recycling quotas are extremely low. For example, large quantities of European electrowaste are dismantled in the West African states of Ghana and Nigeria under sub-standard environmental and social conditions. At the same time, terms such as ‘urban mining’ and ‘anthropogenic stock’ underscore recycling’s potential, especially for the recovery of metals. To date, the focus has mainly been on economically motivated recycling approaches. However, we need to develop a holistic approach that prioritises environmental and social aspects along the lines of a circular economy. In this context, design4recycling is of enormous importance: that is to say, product development must already stress an item’s repairability and capacity for recycling.

At the same time, collection quotas need to be increased. Awareness-raising work and information campaigns, which can also be promoted as part of ‘education for sustainable development’ have a key role to play here. In addition to the recycling depots that municipalities are obliged to operate, they could, in many places, also set up readily accessible ‘electrowaste containers’ or operate ‘mobile hazardous waste units’. Furthermore, they could support community repair workbenches and independent repair workshops.

Environmental risks

  • Emissions and contamination from waste incineration and the disposal of non-recyclable parts and packaging materials in landfills
  • Environmental hazards due to the incorrect disposal of lead-acid batteries
  • Permanent loss of plastics and metals, including rare earths, as a result of inadequate recycling
  • High energy consumption involved in recycling process
  • Export of old mobile phones from Europe to the African continent where toxins are released into the environment on burning devices to recover metals
  • Inappropriate disposal of products containing mercury, cadmium, chrome, perfluorinated hydrocarbons (PFCs), and other noxious agents, pollutes the air, soil and water

Social risks

  • In African states, child labour is used to dismantle old devices
  • Health is endangered by burning cable sheaths and plastic casings, resulting in the release and inhalation of carcinogenic toxins 

Further reading (in German)

06 Transport

Iron ore extraction in Brazil, bauxite mining in Guinea, copper from Peru; production in Hungary, Mexico and China. This is what a mobile phone production supply chain might look like. Getting from raw materials extraction to the finished product generally entails long transport distances by ship, truck and train. Fuel consumption and emissions negatively impact the environment and stress the climate in a way that is also harmful to human health. Transport with heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks is regulated by the Euro 6 emissions standard (Commission Regulation EU/582/2011), and procurers should demand compliance from hauliers.