Rant: Green-marketed phones are total BS

Trying to use green marketing to sell cell phones is a misplaced effort by the phone companies. Instead of marketing green-friendly novelties like mini solar panels, carriers and device makers should implement smarter chargers for all devices and drastically improve their recycling efforts.

You might have seen some of these green phones being talked about in the blogosphere, but it’s likely you’ve never seen them in the wild; it seems like nobody really buys these things. That’s anecdotal, given phone companies don’t often break out these numbers and the market is still new. But Sprint (s s) CEO Dan Hesse said at an event in San Francisco in April that the percentage of green phones sold compared to the company’s other popular phones is small.

I’ve only seen these green phones at trade shows, or at press junkets. There are half a dozen models of these phones from manufacturers like Samsung, Sony Ericsson (s sne) (s eric) and Nokia, (s nok) which have recycled parts, sometimes offer solar accessories, occasionally use biomaterials and often times have more efficient chargers.

This week, blogs were excited that the Samsung Replenish, available on Sprint, is coming to the U.S. The Replenish phone is made of recycled materials, has an efficient charger, has an additional back solar panel accessory, and comes with an envelope for easy recycling. The phone is being touted as the first solar-powered smart phone available in the U.S., though other green phones have been available in the U.S. for months.

That kind of adulation is like saying your aunt is the best macrame pot holder-maker in Bakersfield. Who cares? Yes, cell phones should be recycled, should be made of as much recycled material as possible and should have a smart charger. But these efficiency tools should be mandatory for all phones.

And when it comes to individually powering cell phones with mini solar panels, it’s not really going to make a dent in the developed world. The tiny panels just don’t draw enough power, and the power grid is just too convenient and useful in developed countries. For example, the Frostfire’s Mooncharge, iPhone4 plus extra battery, will give you an extra five minutes of talking on the phone for 20 minutes of direct sunlight shining on the lil’ panel.

Do they sell?

It seems like consumers just don’t care enough to buy a phone based on its eco-friendly characteristics. Sprint is actually selling its green phones as low-end phones, and trying to attract people to them with rock-bottom prices, such as $49.99 for the Replenish and taking $10 off the monthly bill. This is part of an effort to “make green really mainstream,” said Hesse in April. The extra solar panel back is a $29 accessory.

Sprint has been particularly bullish on getting green-marketed phones for its customers as a way to differentiate itself from its larger competitors AT&T (s t) and Verizon (s vz). Hesse said in April that he personally pushed for these green phones for customers, and faced internal pressure from his development team who maintained that green phones wouldn’t sell.

Hesse gave mixed messages about how well the green phones have been selling at the event in April, too. He said that on a percentage basis of sales, the green phones are “still fairly small,” particularly because some of the higher-end screens and packaging aren’t able to be produced in an eco-friendly manner just yet. But at the same time, he said the green phone line is “profitable” to sell. So at least the phone company isn’t losing money on these.

More effective greening of phones

Here’s what should actually happen to make phones more efficient: Cell phone companies need to sell smart chargers with all their cell phones, not just green-marketed phones. These smart chargers, like what AT&T (s T) started offering last year, will stop drawing power when the cell phone is fully charged. Cell phone companies in Europe are adopting these chargers, but U.S. phone companies are farther behind.

The majority of the carbon emissions attributed to cell phones comes from so-called vampire power, which is chargers sucking power even when the phone doesn’t need it, according to The Climate Group’s Smart 2020 report (pretty much the only report of its kind of the carbon emissions of IT). Because of the use of smarter chargers in Europe, the Smart 2020 report predicts the carbon emissions associated with cell phones (the devices not the network) will drop from 3 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions for ICT in 2002, to 1 percent of ICT’s emissions by 2020.

Recycling cell phones should also be a de facto move by all cell phone companies and carriers, and not a marketing effort. Recycling phones can actually produce revenues, if the business model is set up effectively.

Mini solar chargers are an interesting and cool thing to use for a cell phone, but it’s a novelty for anyone who lives in an area with a functioning, modern power grid. Anyone who has tested these things out (I’ve played with a few and a solar backpack) will tell you how little solar power these tiny panels generate. Much of their use comes when they are bundled with a battery, and using the extra battery for backup power when needed.

I think marketing a certain subset of phones as green phones actually does a disservice for making cell phones overall more efficient. Particularly if they are lower-end phones that don’t have the latest features. Green phones as a marketing exercise, actually enables a cell phone companies to benefit from green marketing without taking the more important, and more costly, moves of using smart chargers for all phones, and implementing better recycling measures for all their phones.

At the end of the day, phones should be more efficient and recycled, and yes, greener. But not via marketing.

Images courtesy of Samsung, AT&T and Risager.