Digital Consumer Trends 2022
Few smartphones are bought second-hand, but the market could pick up speed
Most smartphones still end their lives in the drawer of a Scandinavian home. However, new buying patterns could change that.
Used, second-hand, pre-owned, pre-loved. There are several words to describe goods that are resold and reused. Unfortunately, for smartphones the second-hand market has yet to see a breakthrough in Scandinavia, where 88 per cent of phones are still bought new. Looking outside Scandinavia, the percentage figure is a bit higher in The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Japan, but lower in Austria, Canada, Germany, the UK and Argentina.
Figure 20. Purchase of new phones
When you got your current phone, was it new or used? (Respondents who chose “New”)
The slow uptake in recycling smartphones may seem surprising given the focus on sustainability and sustainable buying patterns that is revolutionising many industries and markets. However as in all industries, it is ultimately the end user who decides whether or not to recycle. Most Scandinavian consumers still seem to be hesitant, sceptical or simply indifferent to the matter.
Shifting focus through the years
However, the picture is not simple and purchasing used smartphones has had its ups and downs over the years. For example, among consumers who bought their current phone in 2017 or earlier, 17 per cent obtained or bought it used or refurbished. The number is down to 9 per cent for those who bought their current phone in 2019, and back up to 14 per cent for those who bought their current phone this year.
Figure 21. Purchase of current phone
When you got your current phone, was it new or used?
The reasons for this variability over the years may be due to macroeconomic trends, technological breakthroughs in new smartphones and differences between years in the number of people who can’t be bothered to acquaint themselves with the second-hand market. However, as yet there is no clear pattern of behaviour.
Consumers are concerned about the life span of their phone
What is more clear are the reasons why Scandinavian consumers are choosing not to buy a used or refurbished smartphone when the option to do so is available.
The main reason is lifespan: 28 per cent of respondents who bought a new phone say that they believe it will have a longer lifespan than a used one. 19 per cent say that they specifically wanted a model that was only available new, and 18 per cent think that a used or refurbished phone is less reliable than a new one.
Figure 22. Reasons for getting a new phone
Why did you get a new phone and not a used/refurbished one?
Other reasons for choosing a new phone are that it is more exciting, and that used smartphones are too expensive for what you actually get. Interestingly, only 7 per cent worry about used smartphones having scratches or blemishes, indicating that either Scandinavian consumers are not too concerned about appearance, or that refurbishers in general do a good job on the cosmetic issues.
Excuse me, where can I charge?
It is one thing to decide whether to buy a phone new or used. It is another thing to decide on the actual model to purchase and recognise the variables that go into the decision. Here battery life is the main consideration, although camera features and quality are an increasingly close second. When asked what factors, apart from price, were the most important in deciding which smartphone to buy, the number of respondents in 2021 saying battery was 11 percentage points higher than those saying camera, but only 6 percentage points higher in 2022.
Figure 23. Most important features when buying a smartphone
Aside from price, which, if any, of the following are most important to you when deciding which smartphone to buy next?
Although the proportion of respondents stating that battery life was a factor in their choice of smartphone fell from 43 per cent in 2021 to 37 per cent in 2022, battery life continues to remain at the top of the wish list. And rightly so. With bigger screens, more pixel-packed cameras and ever-increasing processing capabilities, smartphone batteries in the past have caused many problems for consumers and manufacturers alike, resulting in a plethora of complaints, bad reviews and headaches for tech engineers.
Smartphone manufacturers are acutely aware of this and are continually testing new technologies to extend the life of lithium-ion batteries, such as using the tongue-twisting bis-imino-acenaphthenequinone-paraphenylene copolymer.1 Many other battery technologies are also in development, including lithium-sulphur batteries, copper foam technology and supercapacitors that store their potential energy electrostatically rather than chemically.2 However, none of these are expected to be in phones at scale before 2027 at the earliest.
Sustainability is far down the list
With such high demand for extended battery life, advanced camera features, storage capacity and screen size, it is not surprising that Scandinavian consumers focus less on the sustainability aspect of their phones.
Just 2 per cent of consumers highlight carbon footprint as an important factor in their decision to buy a particular smartphone, 2 per cent focus on ease of repair, and only 1 per cent recognise the value of recycling materials and products.
The fact that 15 per cent of respondents take into consideration the expected lifespan of the smartphone before buying is possibly not so much a sign of climate-conscious consumers. More likely it could be because buyers want greater value for their money.
On a more positive note, today’s consumers use their smartphones for a longer period before replacing them with new ones. Going back to 2018, the average time that smartphones had been in use was 1.5 years. In 2022, the average has gone up to 2.0 years, a significant increase seen equally across Scandinavia. The same increase is also seen across other countries, which shows a global tendency for keeping phones longer.
Figure 24. Purchase of current smartphone
When did you buy or receive your current phone?
Figure 25. Age of current smartphone
When did you buy or receive your current phone? (Calculated average of years)
Whether phone owners are cost-conscious, carbon conscious, or simply do not see any need to change their phone, the increasing lifespan could indicate that some consumers are starting to take sustainability into consideration rather than always wanting to own the latest model.
What happens in the afterlife?
All good things must come to an end. Even the best smartphone must one day be replaced, due to damage, battery health, discontinuation of software support, or inadequate security updates causing problems with various apps.
But where do the retired smartphones end up when we get new ones? 49 per cent of respondents have kept their old phone as a spare, while 5 per cent have thrown it out. However 17 per cent of respondents said that they had sold or traded their old phone, 17 per cent had given their old phone to a family member or friend, and 3 per cent had used a recycling scheme or service for the reuse of materials. In 2022, their old phone has had some kind of afterlife for 37 per cent of Scandinavians, a figure more or less unchanged since the previous year.
Figure 26. Afterlife of previous phone
What happened to your previous mobile phone when you bought or received your current phone?
Not surprisingly perhaps, many people want to keep their old phone in case the new phone is lost or broken, and many still use their old phone for storage or access to certain apps. Interestingly, 5 per cent said that they were not sure how to recycle their old phone, 4 per cent were not sure who to sell it to, and 13 per cent said that they simply could not be bothered to get rid of it.
What these numbers signal is that there is still substantial potential for making sustainable choices about smartphones, as future consumers gradually become aware of recycling opportunities as opposed to the immediate convenience of just leaving the phone at the bottom of a drawer.
Figure 27. Reason for keeping old smartphone
Why did you keep your previous mobile phone as a spare?
Will habits ever change?
A big question is: Will habits change and will sustainability feature more in the coming years? And if so, what will be the main drivers of greater focus on sustainability and recycling?
While consumers’ habits will not change overnight, there is certainly room for improvement as more people become aware of the possibilities of both buying and selling old smartphones.
Many Scandinavian telecom operators, such as Telia Recycle or Telenor SWITCH, are already offering various swap deals. However, Telenor has already discontinued this service for new subscriptions, signalling that the recycling market is not currently a major focus point for the established operators.3
New players in the market, however, could have a profound effect on the reuse of phones. Helsinki-based Swappie is an example of a company that encourages European consumers to recycle. Since launching in 2016, Swappie has grown in size to more than 1,200 employees, EUR100 million in annual revenues and a customer base spanning 15 countries.4
Established bricks-and-mortar players could also have a significant market impact. For example, if more stores offered to buy the old phone of customers who are purchasing a new one, this would make the exchange of phones simple and simultaneous. Longer product guarantees on used phones could also have a significant impact. However, the biggest factor in driving up the recycling of old phones is likely to be the phone manufacturers themselves. As an example, Apple Trade-In offers consumers a credit when they trade in an old Apple phone and buy a new one – and even accepts Android phones, although for a lower value.5
Although concerns about sustainability are only slowly spreading through society, a black swan event or supply chain disruptions could potentially cause shifts in attitudes and behaviours, as people recognise that the materials that go into a smartphone are scarce resources available only through intensive mining, with a huge environmental and social impact.
Scarcity can also be a driver of innovation (and it typically is), pushing companies to find new sustainable solutions through advanced research and development. Besides battery technology, smartphone and electronics manufacturers already have other options for reducing their carbon footprint through, for example, recycling rare earth elements; choosing responsible packaging; reusing parts, components and chargers; as well as designing phones specifically for easy repair and easy disassembly.6
According to the United Nations Environment Programme smartphones are one of the most resource-intensive products by weight on the planet.7 As is evident from this year’s survey, however, Scandinavian consumers are still partially oblivious to this unpleasant truth, but attitudes could very well change in the not-too-distant future.