How O2’s smartphone recycling drive is strengthening its consumer relations

EXCLUSIVE: In a sector dominated by a frequent upgrades business model, mobile operator O2 has tweaked its services to place second-hand devices back into the market and has called on other manufacturers to collaborate to tackle e-waste.

Consumers fail to fit into a one-size-fits-all bracket. While younger generations are intent on pocketing the latest smartphone, those less digitally native are content with a phone that caters to their needs rather than their wants.

The desires of the former have created a yearly cycle of smartphone upgrades and a booming market for manufacturers, with shipments expected to reach 1.84bn by 2020 compared to 1.48bn in 2016. But, this is actually a slowdown from recent years, which recorded a 27% increase in 2014, according to the International Data Corporation’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker.

A portion of this slowdown can be attributed to a move towards two-year contracts for smartphones, but companies such as O2 are highlighting the economic case of mobile phone reuse to both the private sector and its consumers.

O2 launched its O2 Recycle initiative in 2009 and the firm’s corporate responsibility and environment coordinator Rhea Horlock believes that it is the multitude of options available for customers under the scheme that has helped it recover more than two million devices.

Speaking exclusively ahead of her appearance at the edie Live exhibition next month Horlock said: “Rather than constantly pushing people to upgrade, we’re giving them options outside of this and almost rewarding them by giving them a lower bill. We’re constantly trying to put the customer first and we fully realise that there are two buckets for customers.

“There’s people that do want the latest tech and the most up-to-date thing whenever it comes out, and we’ll create a cycle that works for them while still responsibly looking after the devices that they don’t want anymore. This also feeds the other market of people who aren’t interested, they just want their phone to do the basics and are happier to keep an older model. As a business with have a model in place that will support them to do that.”

Since its introduction, O2 Recycle has saved the company’s customers more than £135m by encouraging them to hand-in older smartphone models. This has reduced emissions by 10,000 tonnes and slashed water use by 26 million litres in the process.

The recycling scheme forms part of O2’s Think Big programme, which aims to help customers create positive impacts across the globe. O2 claims that the frequency of recycling for old mobile models saw £51 paid back to consumers every minute in 2015 and 95% of the phones are refurbished and re-sold.

Last summer, the company launched its “Like New” initiative which places these second-hand phones back into the market under a five-point grading system. The systems offers different prices and warranties based on the condition of the device and is catering for a growing market of consumers more concerned about the price and performance of a smartphone, rather than the latest model.

Hand-settled agreement

O2’s recycling push has been described as “streets ahead of competitors” by Forum for the Future, which worked with the mobile operator and its rival Vodafone to create the Eco Rating 2.0 – an industry-wide ratings system that compares the green credentials of different mobile devices.

But Horlock believes that collaborative efforts to promote sustainability in the sector are few and far between. Even though Eco Rating is used industry-wide, according to Horlock, a lack of common supplier standards is hindering the sector’s ability to launch wider recycling schemes due to different product specifications from the incumbents.

O2 was recently named as the first organisation in the world to receive the highest Carbon Trust Standard for supply chains, and Horlock, who spoke to edie before that announcement, felt that other firms could tailor O2’s recycling system to help their own supply chains.

“I don’t think other manufacturers are tackling e-waste to the same type of scale as us, but it is a really interesting point that we do have these types of systems set up,” Horlock said. “It would be nice to see a bit more collaboration within the industry.”

Green Alliance data revealed that as many as 125 million UK phones are unused. By increasing focus on recycling and repairing consumer electrics across the sector, manufacturers could cut the carbon footprint of each device by up to half, the Alliance said.

Firms such as Apple have introduced recycling methods, including Liam the recycling robotic arm that Apple is using to regain valuable resources from discarded iPhones. But this isn’t necessarily promoting reuse for a second-hand market.

If companies across the sector could take on these sorts of initiatives, Horlock believes that there is an opportunity to drive change across the telecoms sector, but stated that “getting those conversations in place is the key starting point”.

Rhea Horlock at edie Live 2017

O2’s corporate responsibility and environment coordinator Rhea Horlock is among the expert speakers appearing on stage at edie Live 2017 at the NEC Birmingham on 23-24 May. 

Horlock is appearing on the Strategy and Innovation Stage on Day 2 of the show, which takes a closer look at 02’s work with consumers to drive down e-waste.

Find out more about edie Live 2017 and register for your free two-day pass here.

Matt Mace

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