Mobile phones: When Second-Hand Just Isn’t Good Enough

Mobile phones: When Second-Hand Just Isn’t Good Enough

I’ve decided that I need a new phone.

Need, I hear you say? Do I actually need a new phone?

Good question.

My current phone is an iPhone 3GS. I purchased it as a refurbished phone in January 2010. In phone life, that’s old. iPhone have released 8 different models since they launched, and the iPhone 3GS was the 3rd one they released. Since then, they’ve updated the iPhone 5 times, each model being better than its predecessor.

iPhone Comparison

Yet in real life, four years is not old, and the fact that I’m thinking about replacing it seems ridiculous!

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Or so the saying goes. And whilst on a basic level my phone still functions – it can make and receive calls, the battery still works – it has some problems. It deletes my entire contacts list at least once a month. It crashes at least once a day. The software is corrupted, so I cannot update to a new operating system, nor restore the original settings.

This means that I can’t download new apps, update existing ones or generally use my phone as a smartphone. This is annoying. I realise there are more pressing problems in the world. I know there are people who would argue that a mobile phone is just for making calls, and all this smartphone stuff is unnecessary.

However, I find my smartphone useful. Not having a car, I use public transport a lot and I like being able to check my email, manage my blog and read the news via my phone. We don’t have a television, so my smartphone helps me stay in touch with what is going on in the world. If I didn’t have a smartphone, of course I’d manage. But what I find particularly frustrating is having a smartphone, but one that doesn’t really work properly. That is the worst possible combination!

What are the options if it IS broken?

I really don’t want to buy a new phone. More virgin materials, more unnecessary plastic packaging, and another step on the consumer treadmill. Having to research where the phone was manufactured, where the minerals were mined and whether the workers are fairly paid. And goodness, they’re expensive! A new unlocked sim-only phone (without a contract) costs almost as much as a computer! Then again, it is a computer. A very small one.

Second-hand isn’t a perfect solution though, particularly with mobile phones. I don’t want to buy anything stolen or damaged, and there is no security and a lot of money lost if something goes wrong. Then again, I’ve bought enough electronic items second-hand, as have many people I know, and none of us have ever been ripped off.

The bigger issue, for me, is that I want a high-tech, up-to-date mobile phone. Whatever I buy, I want it to last at least another four years! This means finding a phone that has been released fairly recently. There are plenty for sale, but they aren’t for sale because their owners have seen the light and have decided smartphones aren’t for them; instead they’re selling so they can get another new smartphone. They want to sell their iPhone so they can buy the latest Samsung, or sell their Samsung because they want the latest HTC.

Is this really any better than me buying a new phone in the first place? The consumer treadmill goes on, and I’m still contributing.

Surely there must be a better way?

Buying new – with a difference

What I want is a smartphone with social values. Wishful thinking?

Actually, no.


Social values, environmental responsibility and fair trade are the thinking behind Fairphone, a mobile phone with a difference. Different because they are all about opening up the supply chain, using conflict-free minerals and ensuring workers are fairly paid, and designing a phone that can be used, repaired and recycled responsibly. yes, repaired. They sell spare parts on their website, and have teamed up with iFixit to offer repair guides so people can fix their own phones. No built-in obsolescence here!

Fairphone Spare Parts
When I say “spare parts”, I’m not just talking about the battery and the headphones either!

Here’s what they believe:

Mining: We believe in conflict-free, fair resources that put people first. We’re starting with conflict-free minerals from the DRC that support families, not armed militias.

Design: We’re making phones that are built to last using open, responsible design. We want consumers to have true ownership of their phones, including how they use and configure them.

Manufacturing: Factory workers deserve safe conditions, fair wages and worker representation. We work closely with manufacturers that want to invest in employee wellbeing.

Lifecycle: We’re addressing the full lifespan of mobile phones, including use, reuse and safe recycling. We believe that our responsibility doesn’t end with sales.

The people behind Fairphone don’t think of the Fairphone as a phone, they think of it as a movement. Their vision is to start new relationships between people and their products by showing where stuff comes from and how it’s made. They want us to make informed decisions about what we buy.

Fairphone’s first phone was launched a year ago as a crowdfunding campaign with a target of selling 5,000 phones. They smashed their goal and 25,000 people pre-ordered the Fairphone.

A year later and they’ve just announced a new batch of 35,000 phones available for ordering (NB they currently only deliver within Europe). Last time round, I wasn’t quite ready to switch my dying iPhone. This time, I am. I’ve placed my order, and shipping is expected to begin in July.

The most sustainable mobile phone is always going to be the one you already have. But the Fairphone seems like a pretty good second choice.

28 Responses to Mobile phones: When Second-Hand Just Isn’t Good Enough

  1. Fantastic!!! I wish there was a list of sites for other ‘fair’ electronics (especially for repairing purposes. I loathe the inbuilt obsolescence of most goods nowadays). How are you ordering one if they only deliver to Europe? Relations sending it over?

    • I wish there were too, it is something I will need to investigate I think! There’s so much good stuff going on in the world, but to actually find out about it all – not so easy. Yeah, I’m getting it delivered to my parents’ house. I hope it works when I get it over here!

  2. I’d love to hear how you go with your Fairphone, perhaps write a review once you’ve used it for a while?

    I grappled with the same issues when I needed to get a new phone last year. I’d been able to get by on one long live Nokia for almost ten years and then a hand-me-down smart phone when the Nokia finally went to phone heaven. But I had the same kind of software issues you had with the smart phone and within 18 months it died so I had to find another solution quickly! I went back briefly to another ‘junk drawer’ Nokia for a month, but like you I really appreciate being able to sync my calendar, use maps to navigate and all the other tools a smartphone can give you.

    I ended up buying a Galaxy S4mini as its got a long battery life, is compact and deliberately picked in the hope that it will be long lived. I looked longingly at Fairphone and also Phonebloks ( but got stuck on the geographical shipping restrictions of the Fairphone (Phonebloks was still in development and not yet available).

    • Yes, definitely! They are saying shipping starts in July, so by the time I get hold of it and it for a while it will probably be nearer the end of the year. I’m quite excited!

      Smartphones definitely have advantages. Maps! I love being able to use buses and actually know where I’m going and where I’m supposed to get off! They definitely make life easier. I think the Samsung phones at least let you replace their batteries when you need a new one (unlike Apple) – baby steps but still!

      I wonder why Fairphone don’t ship outside Europe; I’ll have to write to them and see what they say. I know quite a few people who would be willing customers!

      I remember hearing about phonebloks around the same time I heard about Fairphone. It’s great that people are really trying to do something about all this electronic waste : )

  3. I was reading this and thinking how I was going to suggest a great new phone called the Fairphone until I saw you’ve found it already :-)

    It’s great that a small organisation like Fairphone has managed to do something like this and is raising some very important issues. Over the years Fairtrade has come into the public’s consciousness and the importance of looking at the supply chain so it’s about time the same focus was put on electronics.

    I’ll be getting one when my current phone conks out, most of them seem to have trouble lasting over 2 years

    • Yes! I love what they are trying to do, and I love that they see themselves as a movement rather than just a company trying to sell a fairer phone. They have some great blog posts on their website explaining their vision and their journey too – transparency is always better! I really hope they get the support they deserve and continue to grow : )

      How long have you had your current phone?! I agree – it’s almost like they’re built for the bin >: (

      • A year and a half I’ve had mine now but they seem to be built to last just less than a couple of years which is conveniently the same length as most phone contracts!

        • Well I’m rooting for your phone to make it past the two year mark! Not that I don’t think you should get a Fairphone, but it’s so much more sustainable to keep the one you have : p

    • I couldn’t agree more! I love that Fairphone sell all the bits and teach you how to fix it too; that’s really fresh thinking. Another great thing they do that I didn’t mention, is that the phone doesn’t come automatically with headphones and a charger, because they figure that most people already have a heap of chargers and headphones and don’t need more. Saving waste in such a simple way! The charger is just a standard micro USB, not some ridiculous specialised one just for their phone. If you don’t have these, then you can order them as extras. I just love how well thought-out their ideas are.

  4. Lindsay, I wish Fairphone was available in the US, although I don’t need a phone yet. My son worked for a mobile phone provider and supplied me with all my phones. When a customer buys a new phone his company asks if they would like to donate the old one which they then pass on to shelters for abused women. While the phone won’t work to make most calls without a plan they can call 911 (our emergency number) if they are in danger giving them a sense of security. Do your phones work the same way? If so maybe you could donate your phone to a shelter since it still makes calls.

    • Wow, I’ve never heard of that Lois, what a great idea! I will have to investigate. In the UK phone recycling is common and companies will actually buy your old phone so that they can extract the valuable metals and other parts, or refurbish them for reuse. Here in Australia, there is no such industry. It is much harder to recycle a phone, although it is possible (but there is no financial incentive, so i imagine take-up isn’t very high).

      Rest assured, whatever I decide it won’t end up in landfill, and it won’t end up disused in a drawer either!

      • Lindsay, I wish companies took back their phones here to recycle especially the way people upgrade so often. It still shocks me to watch people buy each new phone as it comes out. When we had landlines we kept our phones for decades as they were so reliable and the technology stayed the same.

        Btw, I knew you wouldn’t landfill your phone. ;-)

  5. Super interested to see how your phone goes. I contacted them about getting one in Australia sent on via UK friends, but they said it wasn’t going to work too well here. I’m no techie so can’t exactly remember what the problem was..maybe they have overcome this. Good luck!

    • It says on the website that it’s optimised for Europe, but I don’t exactly know what that means either. I figured I’d get one, and if it really doesn’t work I will pass it on. I really want to support these guys! My current phone doesn’t work too well either, so I’m sure it will still be an improvement!

  6. Wow I didn’t know this was an option, so I’m so grateful for you bringing it to my attention. Can’t wait to hear how you go with it!

    You can definitely recycle phones in Australia – there’s ‘tubes’ for them in most phone stores and elsewhere… like postoffices? But there’s options to get them at least broken down foe the metals. Search for mobile muster. When I bought my ‘new’ Sony, it came with a paid mail bag for my old phone, which was pretty spiffy. In hindsight, I could have taken the time to strip the data, but I didn’t, and I’m not at all worried anymore!

    • It is definitely an exciting idea!

      I’ll have a look, but I’m only recycling there if it goes to charity – I’m not lining these phone giants coffers, they get enough money without my help!

      Yes, the bigger issue is probably figuring out how to remove all my personal stealable data!

    • It would be awesome if the phone was available worldwide. They are a new company, and this is only their second batch of phones. As they get more support (and the money that sales bring) hopefully they will be able to expand and do bigger and better things, and expand outside of Europe!

  7. I got one of the first batch and love it. It was exciting waiting the four months from order to delivery. My last phone was 5 years old and had no internet connection as the software just couldn’t cope. Love it and love that I’ll hopefully have it for years.

    • Hopefully they will release their next batch outside of Europe – I know plenty of Australians who want in on the action too!

  8. My husband and me, we were in the first batch, and it WAS really exciting to wait; we should have it before Christmas, but in the end we had to wait one month longer. And we are very happy, because we love the vision of this company and it is ours, too. Since many years we try to live a fair life (food, clothing, every-day-items, office stuff, PCs (difficult), but the mobile phone was always our problem-child. Now we found kind of a solution, at least it is the right way. And it comes without plastic package in a little carton! Yepee! Wish you fun with yours!

    • Oooh, that IS exciting! I’m not sure when they are shipping the second batch, I think it’s still on for July so hopefully not too long to wait! I am excited about the plastic free part too : )

      I hope these guys get bigger and better and take on all those conventional companies. Go Fariphone, with with your progressive thinking and sustainable ways!

  9. Man, this article is so refreshing to read, I was starting to worry that I’m the only one who cares about buying an ethical phone. Finding public concern about conflict minerals in electronics on the internet is few and far between. I wish I could buy a Fairphone but I live in the U.S. and like others have said, it won’t work well here (because cell towers here have different bands than Europe). I am looking at buying a phone now and I’m agonizing over the decision to buy new or used. Does buying used really decrease demand on conflict minerals? Especially when, like you said, you’re enabling the seller to buy a new phone…and then you’re stuck with a phone that won’t last as long and probably wouldn’t be under warranty anymore. I’ve also tried to get in contact with motorola’s warehouse to buy refurbished directly through them but they keep suggesting I just look at Ebay or Amazon.
    Okay sorry to rant.

    Anyway, one thing I do feel good about is recycling old phones. seems like a wonderful place to send old phones, although I don’t know too much about them.

    I’m also hoping that Google’s Project Ara ( ) reaches completion within my next phone’s lifetime :).

    Let me know if you have any thoughts or advice for me, and thanks again for wonderful articles!

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