Mobile phone madness

ap525270798639Early this afternoon, while strolling around downtown Bethesda, Md., near my home, I saw two people sharing a table at an outdoor cafe, both staring at their phones; pedestrians crossing streets while texting; driver after driver holding phones; and a young woman on a bike, talking on the phone. People say “wearable technology will be part of our future but it strikes me that people are already all but surgically attached to their phones.

It’s hard to remember a time when most people didn’t carry mobile phones but, in fact, it wasn’t that long ago: the late 1990s.* Now that mobile technology is ubiquitous, cell phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have to work harder to sell new phones. This explains the TV and Internet ads you have surely seen this summer, touting more frequent upgrades.

That marketing campaign is the topic of my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Can you remember life without a cellphone? In the late 1990s, only one in five Americans had one. Today, there are 102 active mobile phonesor connected tablets for every 100 Americans, according to CTIA, The Wireless Association.

This is a problem for the cellphone industry. Now that the industry has sold a phone or tablet to just about everyone in the US, the challenge is to sell more of them, more often, by persuading people to get rid of the perfectly good ones they now possess and upgrade to the new new thing.

It’s a classic example of consumerism run amok. Surely you’ve seen the marketing, which has exploded in recent months on TV and online.

“Two years is too long to wait for a new phone!” says T-Mobile, which recently introducing a replacement program called Jump! ”Upgrade to the phone you want twice every 12 months, not once every two years.”

About 152 million cell phones were discarded in 2010, according to EPA. Only about 10 percent of those were recycled. Most end up in desk drawers, attics or, worst of all, landfills. What can be done? Read the column.

A pile of mobile phone

*For the record, I bought my first cell phone in 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I love my iPhone. It’s a marvelous device. But I try to remember that I lived most of the life without one.

Sorry, wrong number: AT&T’s recycling claim doesn’t add up

Sprint is not the biggest cell phone company, but it is the most environmentally-friendly by most accounts. Sprint ranked No. 3 of all US companies in Newsweek’s annual Green Rankings, well ahead of rivals AT&T (28) and Verizon Communication (54). It offered in-store recycling of mobile devices before AT&T or Verizon. And when an independent research firm, Compass Intelligence, compared the recycling and reuse programs of the major carriers, Sprint came out on top. What’s more, Sprint’s CEO, Dan Hesse, personally has led the company’s efforts, as I learned when we met a couple of years ago. [See my 2010 blogpost, CEO Dan Hesse: Sprinting towards sustainability.]

So I was puzzled to see a recent AT&T press release with the headline: AT&T Customers Break World Record for Recycling Wireless Devices. The release said:

By recycling 50,942 devices during a one-week period, AT&T* customers broke the world record for collecting the most wireless devices in a week as certified by Guinness World Records.

It also noted AT&T collected about three million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. The release got a lot of attention, and was widely and uncritically covered–here at the Mother Nature Network, here at Treehugger, at Environmental Leader and elsewhere.

There’s just one problem.

This so-called world record is all but meaningless. Sprint almost surely recycles a lot more cell phones than AT&T, although direct comparisons are impossible.

Consider: AT&T says it collected 3 million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. Sprint says it collected 11 million in 2011–an average of more than 200,000 a week, easily topping AT&T’s so-called record. [click to continue...]

Sprint vs. AT&T: Metrics that matter

When looking at corporate sustainability claims and targets, some metrics matter more than others.

Absolute metrics matter a lot. Did your company reduce carbon emissions from last year? By how much? What about waste? Are you generating more or less?

Not nearly as significant are relative metrics. Greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue are interesting, but efficiency only goes so far when it comes to protecting the planet.  Using less packaging per product is laudable, but if your firm is sells more products every year, it could well be increasing its environmental footprint, too.

I’ve written about this before (See Walmart: A friend of the earth?, Why Mars is a sustainability leader and P&G: A bold green vision but…) because it seems to be to me crucial to corporate accountability. I’m revisiting the topic, briefly, today because of an announcement last week from Sprint–and because, thankfully, a growing number of people inside and outside of business are paying attention to what’s being called sustainability context. [click to continue...]

CEO Dan Hesse: Sprinting towards sustainability

“People just want a cell phone,” Dan Hesse, the CEO of Sprint, told me. “They don’t care how green it is.”

“But we think they will over time.”

Is that sufficient reason to try to sell “green” phones, aggressively promote recycling and buy renewable energy?

“People want to do business with good companies,” Hesse says. “I want us to be thought of as a very good company.”

I met with Hesse last week in Washington to talk about Sprint’s environmental practices. They’re impressive.

You probably recognize Hesse. The 56-year-old chief executive has been starring in Sprint commercials for the past couple of years, touting the company’s “Simply Everything” plan which offers unlimited calling, text and email for one price. Sprint’s subscriber numbers have perked up a bit this year, but the company remains the No. 3 player in the cell phone industry (far behind Verizon and AT&T), with about 48 million subscribers and $32.3 billion in revenues. Its stock price is down by nearly 40 percent in the past two years, trailing rivals and the S&P500.

So Hesse, who has been CEO since the end of 2007, could be forgiven if he had shoved environmental concerns off the agenda.

To his credit, he hasn’t.

Sprint offers not one, but three environmentally-friendly phones–the Samsung Restore, which is partly made from post-consumer recycled plastics, the Samsung Reclaim, whose casing is made in part from bioplastics sourced from corn and the LG Remarq, which also uses post-consumer recyled plastic. Their chargers meet the EPA’s Energy Star standards and they all contain “low levels” of potentially hazardous chemicals (PVCs, BFRs, Phthaltes and Beryllim.).

Because of its aggressive promotion of recycling, Sprint’s collection rate for recycling and reuse of phones has climbed from 22% in 2007 to 34% in 2008 to 42% in 2009–about twice the industry average, according to Hesse. Like some electronics companies, Sprint now offers free recycling, not just to its own customers, but to anyone who has wireless phones, batteries, accessories and data cards that they no longer use, as part of a program called Sprint Project Connect. Proceeds, if any, go to charity. Better yet, a program called Sprint Buyback pays Sprint customers for their old devices, which are then either recycled or, more often, refurbished and reused. The company’s long term goal (2017) is to collect nine phones for every 10 that it sells. [click to continue...]