Is Smartphone Refurbishing A Step Towards Eco-Friendly Tech?

As the smartphone era approaches the end of its first decade, technology users are becoming increasingly tired of the need to constantly replace their smartphones. Whether it’s because they have broken their hardware, the software is no longer compatible with their hardware, or there is no longer enough storage to serve their needs, it’s increasingly true that smartphone users struggle to keep a phone in use for more than a couple years.
Technology companies, of course, benefit from this fact. While they would likely deny that so-called “planned obsolescence” is an overt strategy of theirs, the fact that frequent upgrades are necessary to have a phone in working order is obvious. While this may seem reasonable and expected, it’s not necessarily true when it comes to other big purchases in our lives: we tend to drive our cars for longer than a couple years, and repair them when necessary, and same goes for larger appliances. But for some reason, when it comes to phones we are encouraged to buy a new phone rather than repair a non-working one.
This, as The Guardian reported last year, is all by design: “Once we own a new device, we often can’t replace its batteries or take it to an independent repair shop for a simple fix. In fact, proprietary screws on Apple products often prevent us from opening Apple devices at all. It’s standard practice for companies to plan obsolescence into their products — including by introducing software upgrades that aren’t compatible with existing hardware(pdf) — and they simultaneously profit from the fact that the average laptop has a high likelihood of breaking within 3-4 years.”
While this unfair system has been the status quo for some time, it looks possible that the tide might now be turning with the recent rumor from Reuters that Samsung will begin selling refurbished, high-end Samsung smartphones on the retail market. Apple also offers factory-guaranteed refurbished products in some of its markets, including the US. With concerns about e-waste, planned obsolescence, sustainability, and pricing, it seems curious that until now there have been few ways to get a used phone directly from a manufacturer. It’s worth asking: what took them so long?
One of the main reasons is that this represents a huge risk for manufacturers. As Mashable wrote, “Samsung already offers a number of mid-range phones, and selling cheaper, refurbished versions of its high-end phones could hurt its sales in this department.” In other words, by offering its customers an alternative to buying a brand new, high-end phone, essentially the company has to be willing to take a hit to its bottom line.
But there are lots of potential benefits too. Consumers are increasingly aware of their environmental footprint and looking for ways to reduce it while still keeping up in a modern digital economy and workforce. By offering consumers a slightly more sustainable option that doesn’t come through a third party, Samsung is potentially catering to a niche market that doesn’t want a top of the line model, but wants to purchase from a reputable supplier. In doing so, it builds its reputation as a socially aware and responsible company—no small matter in these hyper-conscious times.
In addition, by offering phones at a lower price point to entry level consumers, Samsung positions itself as a competitor to cheaper-made Chinese phones. In doing so, it could end up building brand loyalty and capture those consumers when they are ready to upgrade and purchase a more expensive model. In other words, it makes them a competitor and opens up a new revenue stream in less mature markets like India, where consumers can’t necessarily afford a top line, high-end model.
It remains to be seen if refurbished models will gain a bigger market share, but if they do, it will undoubtedly be good for the consumer.