Skip to main content
News article15 February 2023Directorate-General for Environment

Sustainable smartphones? Modular design promotes do-it-yourself repair to extend device life

Issue 595: Modular design - where product parts can be replaced and upgraded - is a promising way of extending product lifetimes. However, to realise this potential, it is vital that people are willing to repair their devices.

Sustainable smartphones? Modular design promotes do-it-yourself repair to extend device life
Photo by Bru-nO, Pixabay

A new study has explored how modular smartphones promote user repairs.

Much of the environmental impact of smartphones lies in their manufacturing and materials – for example energy use and precious metals as well as the environmental impact of long supply chains. Increasing the sustainability of information and communication technology, including smartphones, is core to the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan. Some smartphone manufacturers have now embraced the principle of repairable, modular design, making it easier to extend their useful life – and materials that are easier to recycle.

However, design alone may not influence whether users discard handsets rather than repair them, say researchers behind a new study. Ease of repair, incentives to repair and ways to upgrade phones will be needed alongside the possibility, they propose. And modular smartphones will not be more sustainable if the associated business model is to simply sell more. Indeed, most manufacturers focus on recycling discarded devices rather than extending their useful life.

To develop products and business models that promote repair, taking a ‘user-centric’ approach is crucial – understanding how modular products and associated services, such as product renovation, are actually used. This can help manufacturers to address different types of obsolescence (for example, not only technical failure but other factors that may make a user decide to discard something, such as changing trends). The researchers therefore designed a survey1 with questions about real-life repair behaviour of smartphone users from a German manufacturer at the forefront of sustainable design (given the pseudonym SmartMod), which offers semi-modular and modular smartphones along with a low-cost in-house repair service and do-it-yourself (DIY) repair instructions. They analysed the survey data to gain insights into whether modular-device users are more likely to carry out repairs on defective parts.

The researchers note that SmartMod customers are more likely, on average, to engage in sustainable behaviour. For example, an earlier study found that about half of users with conventional smartphones would discard defective devices rather than have them repaired2, but in this study, under 15% of respondents said they had not repaired damaged modular or semi-modular smartphones. This was chiefly because they could continue to use them without repairing, or because they perceived the effort as too high. Only a minority chose a replacement.

Indeed, responses to the survey indicated that SmartMod users are not hindered by the barriers to repair that are reported for conventional devices, such as unavailability of, or expensive, spare parts, and high repair charges. SmartMod’s relatively low repair charges, and support for DIY repairs – contributes to the self-repair of 39% of modular devices in this sample.

When comparing modular to semi-modular device users, the study found that the former were far more likely to attempt self-repair. Semi-modular device users used the repair service about two-thirds of the time, compared to about a third of those with fully modular phones. Repairs on more complex elements of the phone, such as the mainboard, however, were more often sent to the repair service.

Modular design increases perception of self-repairability, according to the findings, and well-designed instructions lead to a positive repair experience; these devices are ‘repair-friendly’. In addition, self-repair may increase emotional attachment to a product, the researchers note, which could postpone product replacement. Manufacturers should promote device repair, say the researchers, and ‘nudge’ strategies such as repairability scores3, could also be used to influence more sustainable product choices.

The researchers acknowledge that among its limitations, the questionnaire did not enquire about previous repair experiences, which may influence behaviour. Nevertheless, it seems that sustainable modular product design (SMPD) encourages people to repair their own phones – and well-designed repair instructions and convenient repair services can help to prolong a device’s lifetime. The researchers suggest that phone manufacturers and retailers should actively promote consumer awareness of repairability.


  1. The questionnaire was distributed through SmartMod's newsletter, Facebook page and their forum, as well as a user-organized Facebook group. Users could participate from June–November 2020.
  2. Laitala, K., Klepp, I.G., Haugrønning, V., Throne-Holst, H. and Strandbakken, P. (2021) Increasing repair of household appliances, mobile phones and clothing: Experiences from consumers and the repair industry. Journal of Cleaner Production282: 125349.
  3. As suggested in a 2021 JRC study (Laps, E.B.E., Van Moeseke, T. and Duflou, J. (2021) Repair Score Study: Product specific application to Smartphones and Tablets) and on (


Amend, C., Revellio, F., Tenner, I. and Schaltegger, S. (2022) The potential of modular product design on repair behavior and user experience–Evidence from the smartphone industry. Journal of Cleaner Production, 367: 132770. Available from

To cite this article/service:

Science for Environment Policy”: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by the Science Communication Unit, The University of the West of England, Bristol.


Publication date
15 February 2023
Directorate-General for Environment

EU Environment newsletter

EU Environment newsletters deliver the latest updates about the European Commission’s environmental priorities straight to your inbox.