Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade | Mobile Phones (completed)

This research project wass part of the Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade (SMART) project, a Horizon2020 - financed research project coordinated by Prof. Beate Sjåfjell of the Law Faculty of the University of Oslo (2016-2020). The Department of Informatics contributed with research on the lifecycle of mobile phones, theoretical and methodological contributions to understanding sustainable behaviour and sustainable technology design, and policy reform proposals.



In 2015, the EU's Horizon2020 programme issued a call for research proposals in the field of policy coherence for development: "Through policy coherence for development, the EU seeks to take account of development objectives in all of its policies that are likely to affect developing countries. It aims at minimising contradictions and building synergies between different EU policies to benefit developing countries and increase effectiveness of development cooperation". The SMART project will contribute with providing new insights into the factors that enable or hinder coherence in the EU's development policy by focussing on what enables or hinders market actors in undertaking development-friendly, environmentally and socially sustainable trade and investment activities. SMART | Mobile Phones (work package 4 in the SMART project) will focus on high tech electronic products available on the European markets, with mobile phones as its particular case.

Unsustainably smart?

The high tech electronics sector is characterised by global value chains that integrate the economies of developing countries to the European economy through the lifecycle of high tech products. In order to understand the challenges to policy coherence for development, arising from trade and finance activities, it is important to understand the environmental and social externalities that occur in these product lifecycles and how they are maintained.

Mobile phones have global supply chains that often start in a developing country such as DR Congo or Uganda. These countries provide the raw materials, which after processing in Malaysia are used in the manufacturing of mobile phones in countries such as China, South Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The disposal or recycling of mobile phones can also take place developing countries. Nigeria and Ghana are the largest ports in Africa for the import of e-waste. The unsustainable disposal and recycling of e-waste has important social and environmental consequences. There is also significant illegal trade in e-waste, which is linked to organised crime. According to the ILO, 80 per cent of the e-waste from developed countries ends up in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, India, and China.

In 2015, more than 1.5 billion new mobile phones were shipped worldwide, often replacing fully functional phones. In the next five years, an additional one billion people are estimated to become mobile phone subscribers. The smartphone adoption rate is already at 60 per cent in the developed world and will lead smartphone growth over the next five years as the average selling price of smartphones continues to decline. This is estimated to add a further 2.9 billion smartphone connections by 2020. At the same time, the average lifespan of a mobile phone has decreased significantly. The rapid evolution of mobile technology, supported by marketing and promotion campaigns, are making mobile phones prematurely obsolete and transforming the device into a disposable product. The mobile phone industry is an extremely competitive and litigious sector, and it is associated with conflict minerals, human rights abuses, labour rights violations, and environmental pollution.

Research Approach

Lifecycle thinking

Our research takes a lifecycle approach to mobile phones: from conception as technology design to the mining of minerals in Africa and South America to produce its materials; from the manufacturing sites in Asia to mobile phone use in Europe; and finally to repair, recycling, and waste.


In order to analyse the sustainability of mobile phones, we use three guiding resources. The first one is a set of Planetary Boundaries - which are central to the Earth System framework proposed by a group of Earth System and environmental scientists, led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University. The second resource is a set of eleven priorities, which form the Social Foundation for overcoming human deprivation, as raised in the UN’s Rio+20 conference and described by economist Kate Raworth. Taken together, these two resources overlap, but also extend, with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The SMART project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 693642. The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of the SMART project and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.


Oteng-Ababio, Martin & van der Velden, Maja (2020). Connectivity in Chaotic Urban Spaces: Mapping Informal Mobile Phone Market Clusters in Accra, Ghana. Journal of Asian and African Studies.  ISSN 0021-9096. . doi: 10.1177/0021909620960147 Show summary

Oteng-Ababio, Martin; van der Velden, Maja & Taylor, Mark Beaumont (2020). Building Policy Coherence for Sound Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Management in a Developing Country. The Journal of Environment & Development.  ISSN 1070-4965.  29 . doi: 10.1177/1070496519898218 Show summary

Taylor, Mark Beaumont & Van Der Velden, Maja (2019). Resistance to Regulation: Failing Sustainability in Product Lifecycles. Sustainability.  ISSN 2071-1050.  11(22) . doi: 10.3390/su11226526 Full text in Research Archive.

Junge, I. (2019). Modularity as one principle in sustainable technology design - a design case study on ICT. In PLATE: Product Lifetimes And The Environment 2019.

van der Velden, M., Taylor, M.B., and M. Oteng-Ababio (2019). Sustainable Product Lifecycles: Asystemic approach to regulation. In PLATE: Product Lifetimes And The Environment 2019.

Schneider, Alice Frantz (2019). Informal processing of electronic waste in Agbogbloshie, Ghana: A complex adaptive systems perspective. CEUR Workshop Proceedings.

van der Velden, Maja (2018). Digitalisation and the UN Sustainable Development Goals: What role for design. ID&A Interaction design & architecture(s).  ISSN 1826-9745.  (37), s 160- 174

van der Velden, M. (2018). ICT and Sustainability: Looking Beyond the Anthropocene. In: Kreps D., Ess C., Leenen L., Kimppa K. (eds) This Changes Everything – ICT and Climate Change: What Can We Do?. HCC13 2018. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology, vol 537. Springer, Cham

van der Velden, M. and M. B. Taylor (2017). Sustainability Hotspots Analysis of the Mobile Phone Lifecycle. Oslo. University of Oslo/SMART, pp. 82.

van der Velden, M. (2016) Design as Regulation: Opportunities and limitations for sustainable mobile phone design. In: Abdelnour-Nocera J., Strano M., Ess C., Van der Velden M., Hrachovec H. (eds) Culture, Technology, Communication. Common World, Different Futures. CaTaC 2016. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology, vol 490. Springer, Cham.

Tags: sustainability; Sustainable Develeopmen Goals (SDGs), lifecycle thinking, sustainable design, mobile phones
Published Mar. 24, 2017 5:38 PM - Last modified May 6, 2021 2:01 PM


Maja van der Velden (project leader)