Second hand consumer electronics can boost flagging sales and cut environmental impact

Thursday 19 February 2015
Dustin Benton Dustin BentonPolicy director020 7630
New strategies for reuse and remanufacturing of mobile devices can expand sales while cutting the carbon footprint of device use by up to half. Just keeping a smartphone in use for an additional year cuts its CO2 impact by 31%.
The second-hand device market is booming. It’s already worth $3bn per year in the US alone. At the same time, new sales are slowing, and 8% of sales of new smartphones are predicted to be cannibalised by used devices by 2018.
A circular economy for smart devices, produced by Green Alliance [1][2], identifies how laptops, tablets, and smartphones which are up to five years old can be profitably recovered and resold in the UK, US, and India. It describes six business models that companies can use to adapt to consumer preferences for lower cost, longer-lasting electronics, and how reuse can bring the benefits of internet connected devices to new consumers in the developing world.
The report includes many options to extend the life of old devices. For example, software companies can detect when a user upgrades to a new phone, find its value on a range of resale sites, dispatch a prepaid envelop, and automatically credit the user’s bank account. This would help make the 28-125 million smartphones languishing in UK homes available for reuse. It would work because surveys show that between 27 and 36% of consumers keep an old phone because they “don’t know what to do with it” and a further 17% are just “too lazy” to get rid of them.
Hardware companies can redesign their devices to capture the value of used parts. The report shows that it is economic to pay workers in India to recover high value components, like displays and cameras, from existing devices, and that redesign can make recovery cheaper. It also shows that the parts in a two year old iPhone could be worth up to £170 – nearly one third of the original sales value of the device.
The report also reveals that devices are getting more carbon intensive over time: the carbon footprint of iPhones has quadrupled in the last five years. In aggregate, the mobile device industry had emissions substantially greater than the whole of the UK’s transport sector in 2013. The carbon footprint of the industry and e-waste problem created by the growing use of smartphones is likely to create pressure for further regulation.
Dustin Benton, author of the report, said:
“Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are spreading the benefits of internet access across the globe. But their production is increasingly carbon intensive, and rapid upgrades mean too many good devices end up abandoned in cupboards and desk drawers, before ending up as e-waste. If companies can make reuse easier, they can boost sales and cut environmental impact.”
[1] Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. Founded in 1979 “to inject an environmental perspective into the political life of Britain” we have been inspiring and influencing change for over 30 years. 
[2] A circular economy is one in which materials are kept in use for as long as possible, so today’s goods are remanufactured or reused to become tomorrow’s goods, rather ending up as waste.