What really shapes smartphone obsolescence?

Updated: Mar 26, 2019


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?

These are exactly the questions our research team, including Tamar Makov, Tomer Fishman and Marian Chertow from Yale University, and Vered Blass from Tel-Aviv University, set out to answer.

Analyzing 500,000 listings of used Apple and Samsung smartphones sold in 2015 and 2016 via eBay, we examined which product properties make smartphones last longer. Repairability and large memory size are typically thought to be ’life extending. Our results suggest that in practice they have limited impact on how long smartphones actually continued to be used, either by the first user or when they are sold as used phones. In contrast, we show that brand, an intangible property, has a meaningful impact on the extent of actual use and on efficient use of materials and energy; in this case, brand adds12.5 months of use per smartphone.

These results 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. Click here to access the full manuscript.