Smartphones today hold more computational power than the super computers used by NASA to send a man to the moon. Yet, more often than not, within a few years, these powerful and complex devices are perceived as obsolete and worthless. As public awareness of the negative consequences resulting from such unsustainable consumption increases alongside consumers’ frustration with what they view as ‘planned obsolescence’, many call upon manufacturers to design and produce phones that are easily repaired and updated. The assumption is, quite reasonably, that such capabilities would make the phones last longer.
Yet, is this indeed the case? Does repairability actually prolong the useful lifespan of smartphones? Or are there other factors that are more influential in determining how long smartphones remain in use?
Despite consumers’ proclaimed interest in repairability, there is evidence to suggests that functional utility does not drive the replacement decision, with users seemingly anxious to justify smartphone upgrades based on minor technical issues or even cosmetic imperfections. Moreover, past work demonstrates that non-functional qualities can increase the utility a product provides. For example, displaying a luxury branded shirt can increase a job applicant’s chances of securing a position, or a charity representative’s ability to solicit donations from strangers. In such cases, the benefit of wearing the shirt does not stem from its function as a clothing garment, but rather from the social context it provides about the wearer’s social status and/or character. Such non-functional utility could also affect how long products remain in use.
From both an economic and an environmental perspective, there are benefits to be gained from extending the smartphone use phase. Therefore, our team set out to examine which product properties prolonged the service life of smartphones. Analyzing nearly half a million listings of used Apple and Samsung smartphones sold in 2015 and 2016 via eBay, we found that although repairability and large memory size are typically thought to be ’life extending’, in practice they have limited impact on smartphone longevity. In contrast, we show that brand, an intangible property, can have a meaningful impact on the duration of actual use, equal in this case to an additional year of use.
These results indicate that despite the wide advocacy for repairability, smartphone obsolescence might be more tightly linked to branding and conspicuous consumption, than to actual functional durability. As such, our findings illustrate the potential of harnessing the intangible properties of products to promote sustainable consumption.
Our work, "What Affects the Second-Hand Value of Smartphones: Evidence from eBay" was recently published in the Journal Industrial Ecology. to access the full manuscript.
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