Blog & PodcastDealing with the Climate Crisis

Anthony Day helps you plan a sustainable future with expert guests and reports on green technologies from across a warming world.

smartphone

Reduce, reuse, recycle. It's a familiar phrase. But if we want to build a truly circular economy there's a lot more to do, like refurbish or even re-manufacture or re-purpose.

Recycle that phone - eventually!

Electronics, particularly mobile phones, are packed with rare metals and expensive components that we just can’t afford to waste. It’s essential that we recycle them. But wait, once we break them down into their component materials we’ve lost the benefit of the energy and the human labour that was used to manufacture that phone in the first place. Better to maximise the use of a unit and only recycle it as a last resort. But do recycle it eventually. How many old phones and tablets have you got stuck in a drawer somewhere? Be honest.

Big Phone Store

I’ve been talking to a man with a solution to the problem, Steve Athwal, founder of the Big Phone Store. We started by talking about his corporate video which explains the problem and the solution. There’s a link to it on the Sustainable Futures Report website.

 

Corporate Video

1.45 million

Pounds being offered for a lottery? Great!

Pictures of my cat on my phone? Possible.

Tons of e-waste every year. Terrifying.

Anthony:

I like that video. That corporate video is lovely. It's lighthearted, but it's very hard-hitting, isn't it?

Steve:

Correct, yeah. And I think that sometimes when you start talking about environmental, people switch off.

Anthony:

I know. Don't I know it!

Steve:

So my brief was look at the general YouTube population. Look at people who've never considered buying refurbished and make it sort of a fun video which gets the facts across but keeps them interested. And I think Ben, who did that video, did very well with that.

Anthony:

He did. He did.

Steve:

Informing the Public

One of the things that we realised is historically, Anthony, I've always been business to business. So I've sold products to people who know exactly what they are. We don't have to explain it. By launching The Big Phone Store, 2017, I've realised there's a lot of consumers, and I believe majority of consumers out there, are not tech savvy. Either you've got people who are very geeky who know absolutely everything, but then you've got everyday people who just don't have a clue. So we get asked simple questions which we all assumed everybody knew, things like, "Why would I want to buy a locked phone? What does a locked mean? What does dual SIM mean? If I buy a pristine condition or a good condition, will the good condition be fully working?"

Steve:

So I've then said, "I want to do what our competitors aren't doing," which is provide the information in a simple broken down way. I have a five year old daughter and I'm like, "If we can create a video and she can understand it, we're doing a good job." We don't want to be too technical. There's plenty of places on the internet where consumers can go and they can get the technical information. But it's for those people who don't know, where they're just, "I want a phone. What do you recommend?"

Anthony:

Steve, you are founder of The Big Phone Store. Tell us what's different about The Big Phone Store and what exactly you do.

Steve:

Refurbished

So here at The Big Phone Store, what we do is we offer refurbished products directly to the consumer. And what makes us different to the hundreds of other sellers out there is we have a history behind what we do. We've not just thought, "Oh," woken up one morning, "what makes money? I know. We'll start selling refurbished phone. And the environment, the circular economy seems to be popular. Let's just jump onto that bandwagon." It's something I've been doing for all my adult life. I turned 50 this year. I started selling not refurbished phones but used phones back then in the late 1980s. So it's not something that I've just thought one day we’ll do. So that sort of gives me the advantage of, we're here for a purpose. We're here, yes, to run a business, but more importantly it is to help the environment more, now more than ever.

The other thing, how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors is customer service. And I believe that, again, there's a large population out there who have never purchased a refurbished phone, even more people out there who don't actually know what a refurbished phone is. So just to be able to go on a website and purchase something is very daunting for them. So what we offer is, we have what we call it is like a personalized shopping, a shopper, where, "Oh, I've never bought a refurbished phone. Why would I want one?" We're there to answer questions and we're always on hand. We have a good team who pick up the phone. We're contactable through Facebook Messenger, through Twitter and all the other social channels. So, that's what we pride ourselves on, where our competitors aren't doing that. They're putting products on their websites and they're expecting people to know what they're buying. And then we-

Anthony:

Okay, okay. But, look, why would anybody want a refurbished phone? If it's a used phone, is it going to be as reliable as going to buy a new one? Surely the new ones are going to be better, aren't they?

Steve:

Grades of Quality

Again, that sometimes is when I mention refurbished phone, that is sort of an umbrella term. And under that umbrella we have, what is a refurbished phone? They vary in condition. And if we look at the top end, which on our website at the moment we sell what's known as pristine, these could be devices where someone's walked into a retailer, some of the major retailers on every high street, opened the phone and said, "Actually, I don't like that." They close the box. It's never actually been used. It's never actually been switched on. So, that's the highest grade you have.

You could then have another grade where someone purchases the phone, takes it home, uses it for a day or two and returns it. And it varies all the way down to, yes, people who have had their phone for a year or two, who have then traded it in and purchased another one. So people have this misconception that all refurbished phones are used and they're going to have all sorts of Frankenstein parts within them. It does vary. Again, we're in it for the long-term. So when we sell a product, we have to ensure that that product is going to last as long as a new phone would, hence we offer 12 month warranties with all our devices.

Green Credentials

And most importantly, we need to make sure when that customer receives that device, they're happy. If you look at some of our reviews online, there's an awful lot of reviews that are left for us where people have never considered a refurbished phone. They've purchased one from us and they're absolutely blown away and they're going to recommend it to their friends, family. They've bought one, they've come back and bought two, three, four. Okay, so to answer your question, why would people buy refurbished over new? Historically, it used to be saving money. It was, "Oh, if I buy refurbished, it'll be cheaper than buying a brand new one." But what we've noticed is over the last three years, so it's become more and more people are more environmentally aware. It's coming to the forefront. It's sort of become fashionable for majority of organizations to speak about their green credentials.

Anthony:

Okay. So what's the advantage, then, from an environmental point of view?

Steve:

Rare Minerals

So again, it's the saving and within the devices, there's a lot of minerals which are used, which are rare. For example, gold. A lot of people talk about gold. And about 80% of the world's gold has already been mined. We've all seen those documentaries and we've all read about it, where in certain parts of the world how they extract these minerals, it's unethical. They use child labour. So it's helping the environment when it comes to not having to, again, mine for those minerals where we can just reuse a device.

Anthony:

Manufacturers' Perspective

Okay. All right. So it's good for the environment. It must be less good for the manufacturers because they make money out of selling new ones. Do you have any resistance from them? I mean, from the point view of design, some of these phones are very, very difficult to open. And is it not difficult for you to work on them?

Steve:

Difficult to Open

Absolutely. The manufacturers, when refurbished wasn't a thing and there wasn't a big demand for it, you'd often get phones where you could take the back cover off, pop a new battery in it, and people would keep their phones for five, six years. As time's gone on, the manufacturers have realized, "Hold on. We want consumers to buy new." And, yes, they put a lot of measures in place to stop those phones being repaired. For example, the most common one these days seems to be battery. Nearly every modern phone has a battery sealed within the phone where a consumer can't simply pop a new one in. The manufacturers have starting sealing things. So a lot of the phones, there aren't even any screws where you can open that up.

£1 billion industry

But again, the refurbished industry, it's a billion pound industry worldwide. And there are many companies who, whatever the manufacturers put in place, they will look at systems on how to overcome that. So, for example, let me think of something that's quite recent, where the phones were Apple. Apple, for example, they used to use glue. And what a lot of the refurbished would do to get into the devices, you'd just use hot air and you'd heat the glue up. It'd become soft and you'd open the phone. Some of the manufacturers then realized, "Hold on, let's make adhesive which you can heat it as much as you like, it doesn't become easy to open."

Laser

So again, on an Apple iPhone 8, for example, the back cover, the glue they use on that back cover, if you drop it, it's made of glass, so it's made out of material which is likely to break. People drop their phones. The manufacturers know this. And to remove the glass off the back is extremely difficult. So we used to use heat, but it was so laborious and it's such a hard task. There's companies out there now, and what we use is we use a laser, so it just completely destroys the glue which attaches the glass and makes that repair easier.

Anthony:

Regulation

Right, okay. Do you think there ought to be legislation or regulations so that it's easier to refurbish and reuse, well, not just phones, but electronics or a wider range of consumer products? Because you've mentioned minerals are scarce, but when you actually throw a product away, you're not just wasting the minerals that are in it, you're wasting the power that's been used to create it and you're wasting the human labour that was involved in it, aren't you?

Steve:

Right to Repair

Absolutely. Here, myself, personally, everyone else here at The Big Phone Store, we're all for the right to repair. There is big movement. And again, these manufacturers are making these changes not because what's right for the environment, they're making these changes due to legislation. So, yes, within the EU, that law was passed, and Apple have said, "Yes, we're going to provide parts for X amount of years where we will let consumers purchase those parts," knowing very well that even if they make those parts available, are consumers going to have the technical knowhow to actually carry out that repair? My guess is they know a consumer could buy a screen, try and fit it, but do more damage in the process and then end up ultimately having to purchase another device because of the damage that they've caused. It is something that I can't see changing.

Less Innovation

Again, the manufacturers, they want people to go back and buy new. And I think that is also another reason why refurbished has become so popular is the innovation in the latest models aren't there anymore. Five, 10 years ago, you'd have a device. It would then be replaced with a newer model. And there would be so much difference within it. It would be worth upgrading to the latest device. These days, what do we see in every sort of new release? Faster process, a newer camera seems to be the way they're going. They might throw in a different color, but is that really enough to justify spending, what, £1,000 plus on another device? No. And I think consumers are realizing that and people are hanging onto their phones for a lot longer as a result of that.

Anthony:

Chip Shortage

Is there any problem at the moment as far as chips are concerned? Because the motor industry is suffering because you can't get the chips for its sat navs and all these control systems. Does that affect the phone industry as well?

Steve:

Absolutely, it does. The manufacturers obviously would have suffered as a result of this. For what we do, it doesn't affect us because what we're doing is basically reselling devices which have already been manufactured. So in essence, I suppose this is a good thing for us. The latest Google Pixel 6, there was a big shortage of those available, and there still is. So if the consumer was, "I want that phone. I want a Pixel 6," they go onto Google's website, look at the waiting times. And when people want it that badly, then they end up buying from us, which is a refurbished device. So for us, that chip shortage has been a fantastic thing that's happened for our business.

Anthony:

Yes, well, you do sell new phones, don't you? But are you finding the proportion of refurbished that you're selling is growing, then?

Steve:

95% Refurbished

Oh, easily. I'd say 95% of what we sell is refurbished. Probably 5% is new.

Anthony:

Oh, really? Oh, as big as that. Wow.

Steve:

It is as big as that. But again, I suppose it may have something to do with, we have a lot bigger choice and a lot bigger range in terms of refurbished as opposed to new. We do sell new, but we don't have anywhere near the volumes in new devices as we do with refurbished devices.

Anthony:

Recycling

I see. Okay. If somebody comes to you to buy a new phone, or a new tablet, or a new laptop, will you take their old device for refurbishing or recycling?

Steve:

Yes, absolutely. On the website itself, we have a section where customers can trade in their devices. Obviously, there's a limited amount of devices which have a resale value. For the retro, there's a lot of collectors out there who collect the older models. Years ago, people used to collect stamps and coins. And what we've seen now is people are actually collecting the older and we refer to them as retro phones. I personally have quite a big collection myself, which I've been collecting for a number of years.

Anthony:

Circular Economy

Great. Well, Steve, thank you for your contribution to the circular economy, because the circular economy seems to be the poor relation in environmentalism at the moment. People are talking about carbon emissions and they're talking about plastic pollution. They don't seem to be talking so much about the circular economy, but it is incredibly important. So thanks for taking the time to talk to us and explain about your business.

 

Steve Athwal of the Big Phone Store. 

For the sake of balance, given that the Sustainable Futures Report doesn’t get sponsorship or advertising from anyone, I should mention that other suppliers of refurbished phones are available. 

I thought it was interesting to find out about Steve’s business model and about the lengths some manufacturers are going to try and limit his business. He mentioned the Right to Repair. There is a movement working within the EU to introduce legislation so that appliances and products are designed to be possible to repair. There is legislation in the UK, but critics say that it does not go far enough, covering kitchen appliances but not phones and electronics.

In some places events are set up where people can meet informally and help each other to repair their devices. The Refurbs Repair and Reuse Cafe and workshops in North Wales is an example. 

Did you root out your old phones and tablets? Even if they are not worth refurbishing they’re worth recycling. After all, if they go to landfill much of what they contain is toxic.

 

And that’s it…

…for this edition.

The government’s energy security strategy which I've been promising to tell you about for a while is now scheduled for publication on Thursday so that's obviously far too late for Friday's edition and I'll have to hold it over until next week. The third part of the AR6 report from the IPCC has been published on schedule so I’ll aim to bring you a preliminary view on Friday.

Cafe and Networking

Last week I was interviewed on the Cafe and Networking podcast by Tom Reach. Not to put too fine a point on it, the number of listeners since then has gone ballistic. The big increase in hits has come from the US, so hello to all of you out there. I’ll be sure to include more US content in future - and of course if there are issues you think I should cover please get in touch. That’s This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

You can also find me on Patreon at patreon.com/sfr. Thanks to all who already support the Sustainable Futures Report that way.

 

That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report.

I’m Anthony Day.

Until Friday.

 

LINKS

Right to Repair

https://repair.eu

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56340077

Cafe and Networking podcast interview

https://cafeenetworking.blogspot.com/2022/03/anthony-day-sustainable-futures.html 

https://youtu.be/oeErZiSXYB4 

The Big Phone Store

https://www.thebigphonestore.co.uk 

 

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About Anthony Day

A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
And also, I do address conferences.

Anthony Day

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