As the world economy drops further into economic crisis, discerning - and perhaps cash-strapped - mobile phone users are increasingly being pushed to ask themselves the same questions that have been presented to car buyers for several years. Do I pay more or accept a less performing model to reduce my impact on the environment? Should I take a minuscule step in the fight against global warming when the overwhelming majority of my fellow consumers are not going to even consider my choice, let alone make it?
The International Herald Tribune, February 16, 2009 Monday - As the world economy drops further into economic crisis, discerning - and perhaps cash-strapped - mobile phone users are increasingly being pushed to ask themselves the same questions that have been presented to car buyers for several years.
Do I pay more or accept a less performing model to reduce my impact on the environment? Should I take a minuscule step in the fight against global warming when the overwhelming majority of my fellow consumers are not going to even consider my choice, let alone make it?
Until now, there have been few models available of what are sometimes called green or environmentally friendly mobile phones, so consumers have been able to dodge the choice without having to do extensive soul searching. That is slowly changing, as the mobile phone industry looks for ways to appeal to a growing segment of consumers that wants to reduce its carbon footprint.
The mobile phone industry is likely to go to great lengths to tout its environmental credentials at its largest trade show of the year, the Mobile World Congress, this week in Barcelona. That will give Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and other mobile makers a chance to see if consumers grappling with what many economists have dubbed the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression are ready to pay more for ''green'' phones, or if consumers are more interested in concentrating on tightening their purse strings.
''The end game is a product that is green, but will save people money,'' said Tom Byrd, an industry analyst with CCS Insight in Solihull, England. ''People aren't going to care about environmentally friendly mobile phones until the green products cost less than the regular ones. It's good that manufacturers are talking about this because it will raise demand down the road and prices will come down, but it will be two to five years before we see this as a mass market phenomenon.''
The mobile phone industry is already reeling from a difficult 2008 and many in the industry have forecast that a turnaround could be more than two years off.
''2009 will be a very difficult year for several businesses in the mobile and wireless industry,'' Luke Thomas, a program manager for the consultancy Frost & Sullivan wrote in an e-mail message. ''It will be easier said than done to state that the market will bounce back by the end of 2009 as the sheer fact is that markets will begin to stabilize only toward the latter half of 2010 and attain positive growth by late 2011 or early 2012.''
Nokia, which made more than one of every three cellphones sold last year, will likely have to play a leading role in producing green phones before a critical mass is reached in the industry. But Nokia, based in Finland, will not release any green cellphones this week and will instead promote its push to put what it calls green features in as many of its mobiles as possible.
These features include a light sensor that detects natural light, allowing the phone to save energy. Most Nokia phones now beep when they are fully charged, alerting the owner to detach the charger from the wall socket.
Motorola will be displaying its MOTO W233 Renew, which was released this month in the United States. The W233 is made using plastic from recycled water bottles and can itself be entirely recycled. The phone costs $9.99 with a two-year contract and for now can only be bought through T-Mobile. The phone is also sold in packaging made of 100 percent recycled paper and includes a prepaid shipping envelope for buyers to send in their old mobile phone for recycling.
In a new twist in the race to produce the most environmentally friendly cellphone, Motorola will pay to offset the carbon emissions created to manufacture and distribute the unit, as well as to recycle it at the end of its life. The payment will also cover the first two years of use. Motorola says the W233 is the first carbon-neutral phone.
Based on a recommendation from the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group, Motorola's payments will be used to help a landfill in New Bedford, Massachusetts, catch and use the methane gas it creates, said Bill Olson, the director of the Office of Sustainability and Stewardship at Motorola Mobile Devices.
Olson said the W233 Renew was an outgrowth of an environmentally friendly concept phone designed in 2006.
As with the W233, the concept phones give a window onto where the industry is headed, even though the majority of the phones will never be produced for sale.
Late last year, Sony Ericsson presented a concept phone called GreenHeart that is made with recycled biodegradable components. The charger draws a fraction of the power of most chargers when it is plugged into an outlet, but not connected to a phone. It is always more efficient to unplug a charger when not in use.
ZTE, a Chinese manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, and the Latin American service provider Digicel said they would introduce what they called the first solar-powered, low-cost mobile phone Wednesday in Barcelona. The phone could make mobile communications available to two billion people who cannot use cellphones because they have limited or no access to electricity, the companies said.
Another way manufacturers are touting their environmental credentials is through the applications their phones can run. The Nokia 5630 Xpress Music released last week has a preloaded application called ''we:offset'' that lets users measure the carbon emissions they are responsible for. There is also a link to a payment form for people who want to pay to offset the pollution they create.
''Recycling is very important and we continue to do a lot there, but there are also real opportunities with energy efficiency and creating services that help people make more sustainable choices,'' said Kirsi Sormunen, Nokia's vice president in charge of environmental affairs.
The we:offset application and another called the Greenest Explorer are preloaded on some phones and can also be downloaded. On Tuesday in Barcelona , Nokia will announce the winner of a competition to make the best environmentally oriented application. The finalists include an application that reduces paper consumption by using a barcode stored on the phone to gain admission to events, and one for the Chinese market that gives real-time mass transit information.
Apple's application store has similar programs to the we:offset that can be used on the iPhone.
But while the industry makes its first tentative moves toward a more environmentally sensitive future, some experts note that the effect of the various initiatives will be minimal until the manufacturers increase the green characteristics of their high-volume products.
''This is absolutely a niche product and niche market and niche audience,'' said Byrd, the CCS analyst. ''But there is an audience out there that cares about the environment and will pay more to lower their impact. This is where the industry is starting, the important step will be expanding to a broader audience.''