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The iPhone, Planned Obsolescence, and the Environment

What kind of cell phone do you have? Is it the latest and greatest smart phone? How about your TV? Did you upgrade from a plasma to LCD, then to LED? How about your laptop, tablet, ipod, and nook? Are they the lightest, thinnest, and most advanced out there? Our technology is changing faster than even most of us can keep up with, and definitely faster than Mother Nature would like. In this post, Mediha Din explores the significant impact technology has on the environment.

A Collection of iPhones
My Brother’s Collection of iPhones

My brother had a sparkle in his eye while he was opening up the package to his new iPhone 5. Almost all the men in my family work in the technology industry, so I’ve listened to them discuss that dang phone for months now. My brother was among the first to receive it. Does he need it? Doubtful. He already has the iPhone 4s. I remember not too long ago rolling my eyes as he made countless requests to Siri, only to hear “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t answer that” over and over.

I watch as he takes the new iPhone5 out of the box and marvels at all of the changes. The changes that will help everyone else know that he has upgraded. It is a little longer, a little lighter, and the case is clearly different on the back side. I can already see him in my mind walking around with it as everyone takes notice. “Is that the new iPhone? Can I see it?” someone is sure to ask him.

To my brother, and Apple’s advertisers, this phone is a revolutionary upgrade. Never mind that the phone will require my brother to buy all new power cables, docks, speakers, adapters and car chargers because it has a different style of plug in at the bottom of the device than last year’s model. Never mind that his phone won’t fit in his old phone case and he’ll have to replace that. It’s funny how one new purchase leads to a cascade of consumerism.

Watching him eagerly transfer his data from his old phone to the new, reminded me of The Story of Stuff, a wonderful, animated, fact-filled, analysis of consumption in the United States.

Apple, among many other producers of technology, serves as prime example of a concept discussed by sociologists, known as planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the manufacturing of products that are intended to become inoperative or outdated in a fairly short period of time.

When millions of people upgrade a perfectly functioning phone, millions of slightly older devices often end up in our landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans discard more than 2 million tons of obsolete electronic products annually. This can be especially troubling since many of the materials used to create these devices can contain hazardous chemicals.

The three main sociological viewpoints- structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism-can be used to analyze the connections between technology and the environment.

Structural functionalism emphasizes the interdependence between society and the natural environment. In other words, what benefits the earth can also benefit humans, and vice versa. For example, buying a used PlayStation on Craigslist is good for you because it is cheaper than buying a new one, and it is good for the earth because the electronics end up in your home instead of the trash.

Conflict theory emphasizes how wealth and the pursuit of profit worsen environmental problems. Manufactures want to maximize sales by getting consumers to throw away the old and get the latest gadget, regardless of the cost to the earth. Manufacturing unnecessary products requires the use of natural resources, and transporting the products contributes to air and water pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

Symbolic interactionism focuses on labels and definitions in regards to the environment. You have probably noticed that half the products in any aisle at your local Target or Walmart now have labels such as “Greener” or “Eco-friendly.” Many companies are also working to “green” their reputations. The Huggies diapers labeled “Pure and Natural” serve as a great example. The package is covered with green leaves, a baby sitting in the grass, words like “organic,” and phrases like “discover the pure bliss of a diaper that includes gentle, natural materials.” Disposable diapers however, are the third largest single consumer item in landfills. In homes with a child in diapers, disposable diapers make up 50% of household waste.

The deceptive way in which environmentally damaging corporations portray their products as “earth-friendly” is known to sociologists as greenwashing. In order to help confused consumers see past the green packaging, the Guide to Greener Electronics was created by Green Peace, which rates companies based on criteria such as use of toxic chemicals, electronic waste, and energy consumption.

Apple has made efforts to improve the environmental damage caused by their cell components with each generation, and many wireless providers, such as Verizon, have been urging consumers to recycle their old phones. You can donate old phones to organizations that provide cell phones for victims of domestic violence, senior citizens, or police departments. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling one million cell phones saves enough energy to supply more than 185 U.S. households with electricity for a year.

Understanding the connection between technology consumption and environmental damage may help consumers like my brother think twice about upgrading, when the “iPhone 6” comes around next year. I’ll leave you with an old saying; the greatest thing to have in the world is… enough.

Dig Deeper

  1. Watch The Story of Stuff video. What are the 3 other examples of perceived obsolescence in fashion or technology that you can think of?
  2. Look for more real-life examples of greenwashing. Take pictures of 3 products you encounter in stores that are advertised as eco-friendly. Next, research if the products meet the national guidelines for being environmentally-friendly, created by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  3. There are many ways that technology also helps environmental efforts. Solar energy can be used in place of fossil fuels. Websites like Engrade.com reduce paper waste by encouraging assignments to be turned in online. What are 3 other ways technology has been used to help the environment?
  4. In addition to environmental impacts, there are also many severe social implications of our love for new gadgets. Read about the connection between minerals found in your phone and violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Watch this video to understand conflict minerals. What do you think can be done to raise awareness about this issue?