Do I Actually Need a New Cell Phone?

Do I Actually Need a New Cell Phone?

Written by Morgan Rowe

for Prof. Jeff Gandell


All the shiny metal phones seemed to magnetize me, drawing me to them. I wanted badly to replace my scratched up Motorola for the better and newer iPhone, until I saw the Apple advertisement hanging on the wall at the Telus store. The ad was simple – just a picture of a green forest with the following statement: “over 99 percent of the paper in our packaging is recycled or sustainable. That’s almost good enough.” I must disagree – that is not almost good enough. Sure, 99 percent is pretty close to 100 percent, but is the packaging really the main concern regarding cell phones and our environment? What about all the heavy metals finding their way into our water supply? What about the energy required to make the plastic that will also end up in a landfill?

I am well aware of the environment and how some of our actions are compromising it. Everyone is taught from a young age the three R’s and the importance of conservation; however, we still don’t think twice about many of our destructive habits. Even as an environmental science student, it seems that I am still being blinded. Why is that? Everyone is aware of pollution’s effect on our environment yet we still continue to buy new phones.

For phone companies, the environment is always secondary to profit. That’s where marketing is significant. Apple is a master of advertisement. Their marketing strategies developed from our cognitive weaknesses. One aspect of advertising that Apple uses is “frequency of exposure.” Psychologist Robert Zajonc noticed in his 1965 experiment “The Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” that our desire for something grows in proportion to the amount of times that we are exposed to it. This relationship between desire and exposure is why you can find Apple advertisements everywhere.

Between television shows, on web articles, and in magazines are just the conventional places for advertisement ambush – but there are many more. Advertisements for the iPhone are even plastered around multiple metro stations of downtown Montreal. Every day that I take the metro to school, I am welcomed by a beautiful monarch butterfly of various shades of orange. The photo, even at such a large size, has great resolution – you would think it was taken by a professional camera. But Apple is sure to indicate that the photo was taken by an average person using the iPhone 6. This type of advertising plays on another aspect of our psychological make-up – our ego. When we take a picture, we want others to think it’s amazing, compelling them to double-tap that Instagram photo, thus satisfying our ego.

Advertisements that blanket the metro station walls are a source of subliminal messaging, enforcing the desire for a new phone. But advertisements are not the sole source. Once on the metro train, I see only the tops of people’s heads and the Apple logo on their phones. It seems like everyone has a phone, reinforcing the idea of needing one.

Marketers continue their mind control by further exploiting our ego. We all care what others think about us – it’s a result of the evolution of our species. We may no longer need to be accepted in order to survive; however, being accepted by our peers makes surviving more enjoyable.

Solomon Asch conducted a study in 1958 exposing the human tendency to conform to peers. In the study, participants were shown a card with four lines on it. Two of the lines were obviously the same length, yet when asked which lines were identical, 37 of the 50 participants answered wrong. The participants weren’t unintelligent – their minds were tricked. Each time the study was conducted, the majority of the people in the room were actors – aware of the experiment. The actors all answered the question with the same wrong answer in front of the naïve participant. As a result, the participant followed suit and answer incorrectly as well. They likely felt insecure for thinking differently than everyone else and therefore they conformed. The study exposes a natural weakness in our psyche. The participants believed that if they answered differently, their peers might think they were dumb. Similarly, if I don’t have the newest cell phone, my peers might think I’m not cool.

Companies such as Apple use this fear of not being accepted in their marketing technique. A 2013 commercial for the iPhone 5C features a collection of short scenes of different people from around the world happily using their iPhones. The commercial is concluded by the phrase “for the colorful,” followed by the Apple logo. What does that even mean? It must be splendid to be “colorful” since the people in the commercial, going about their regular day, were just so darn happy. The commercial suggests that in order to be accepted in this growing group of “colorful ones” you need the common denominator linking all those people together – the iPhone 5C. But of course, you don’t actually need the iPhone to be happy. It is almost like the actors in the commercial are the actors in Asch’s experiment. The people watching the commercial are the suckers who are unaware of the whole thing. They buy the phone without realizing that they are conforming.

Even though cell phone companies are targeting anyone between the ages of 13 and 90-something, the most affected by marketing seem to be teenagers. Teens are especially susceptible to the marketing that pokes at humanity’s desire for acceptance. The phenomenon of teens pleading with their parents to get them a cell phone, using the argument “but everyone has one,” occurs so often that it is almost cliché. But now it’s not even enough to just have a cell phone. You must upgrade as frequently as companies produce the next generation – at least to be considered “cool,” that is.

According to a Consumer Habits & Lifestyle Survey, 38% of young adults admit that they were ashamed of their phone since it was too old (Coley). Moreover, when given the choice between their phone, watch, clothes, and car, 58% of people of all ages believe that the first thing people notice about them is the type of phone they have. Sabrina Bellval, a sales representative I interviewed from Telus, admits that the differences between iPhone models are “not really a big deal but, with our generation mostly, it’s, you can say, cooler to have the new iPhone.”

However, our cellphone buying habits cannot be completely blamed on marketing or peer influence since nobody is forcing us to get a new phone and the choice is really ours to make. This choice is where the distinction between want and need is important.

Our society seems to have an attitude of getting what we want when we want it. We can get food in a matter of minutes and for a cheap price. All information is readily accessible by the click of a few buttons and we can buy pretty much anything at a store. All of this seems great, but, in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Although he was referring to the laws of physics, I believe it is still significant when applied to our everyday life. If all our actions have consequences, we should always try to minimize the negative ones, right? Some of the things we want to do, such as buy a new mobile phone, have negative consequences on the environment. Those effects on our ecosystem are far more significant than our desire for the latest gadget.

Cell phones in North America, on average, retire after 18 months regardless of having a functional lifespan of several years (“Phone Fact Sheet”). As a result, approximately 140 million cell phones were estimated to be discarded in landfills in 2011 (“Environmental Impact”). These phones were deemed “toxic waste” after a study conducted in 2007 by the American Chemical Society. The observed levels of metals that leach into the surrounding soil of landfills were classified as hazardous.

The mentality that society has adopted is recognized as “consumerist,” but this does not encompass all the things consumers buy. I am not proposing that, in order to protect the environment, we must revert back to pre-industrial times. Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace activist, made a viral video called “the story of stuff,” illustrating the average American’s spending habit. She argues that consumption in general is not a bad thing. What is bad is the “particular strand of over-consumption, where we purchase things, not to fulfill our basic needs, but to fill some voids about our lives and make social statements about ourselves” (Fox). By stepping back and looking at the whole issue, it appears that our minds, and thus our choices, have been compromised by marketing, peer influence, and our own selfish desires. The only solution is to recognize this compromise and act against it.

Telus has offered to upgrade my cell-phone, free of charge, if I promise to re-sign with their company. I agree, that sounds like a pretty good deal; however, I have only had my current cell phone for about sixteen months. It is clear to me now that I do not need a new phone and therefore have decided to decline Telus’ offer. After all, holding onto my phone until it doesn’t work anymore is a small effort to make to be more environmentally friendly.


Works Cited

American Chemical Society. “Cell Phones Qualify As Hazardous Waste.” ScienceDaily, 16 Apr. 2007, Accessed 16 Apr. 2016

Coley, Judith. “Consumer Habits & Lifestyle Survey.” LinkedIn, 5 Mar. 2013, Accessed 29 Mar. 2016.

“The Environmental Impact of Cell Phones.” EPA, 17 Aug. 2011,

EveryAppleAd. “Apple iPhone 5c ad – Greetings (2013).” Youtube, 23 Sept. 2013. Accessed 16 Apr. 2016.

Fox, Louis, Dir. Leonard, Annie, Perf. The Story of Stuff. Directed by Louis Fox, performance by Anne Leonard, Free Range Studio, 2007.

“Phone Fact Sheet”. The Secret Life of Things, Eco Innovators,!phone-facts/c611&gt. Accessed 30 Mar. 2016.

“Solomon Asch conformity experiments.” Age of the Sage, Accessed 16 Apr. 2016.

Zajonc, Robert B. “The Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure.” Technical Report, no. 34, 1965, pp. 1-80, gt. Accessed 16 Apr. 2016.


About the Author:

Morgan is completing her last semester towards a DEC in Environmental Science. Next year she will attend university in biochemistry. As former Green Earth executive, she has help oversee new initiatives at Dawson such as the composting project. Other hobbies of hers include playing for the Dawson Blues rugby team and volunteering at a youth camp.

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