Society’s obsession with new gadgetry has wreaked havoc on the environment: Close to 50 million tons of toxic e-waste are generated each year, and the mostly Africa-based supply chains for cobalt and rare earth metals used in components are riddled with human rights violations and planet-damaging mining practices. The problem is exacerbated in part by the yearly parade of new models of smartphones, tablets, and wearables from tech giants such as Apple, Samsung, and Google, and all the marketing dollars put behind these launches. But as phones become more durable, more expensive, and less differentiated from previous iterations, French refurbished-electronics marketplace Back Market is working to convince Americans that “new is not exciting,” says CEO Thibaud Hug de Larauze.
“There hasn’t been major innovation in smartphones in four years,” says Hug de Larauze, who uses a five-year-old iPhone 6 that would retail for about $200 on his site. “It’s mostly psychological, with advertising telling you that you need a new one.”
The global market for used and refurbished smartphones is growing—it was $19 billion in 2017 and will reach $44 billion by 2027, according to Performance Market Research—while new smartphone sales contracted by 4% worldwide in 2018. But U.S. consumers are simultaneously more familiar with and less excited about buying pre-owned phones. A 2019 poll by Back Market found that 80% of Americans never shop for refurbished electronics. Of those, half said they didn’t trust resale devices; the other half had never considered them.
After launching in the U.S. and raising $48 million in Series B funding in 2018, five-year-old Back Market is moving to change that, and do for used gadgets what Airbnb did for renting strangers’ homes: reposition them as something people would confidently spend money on. For a 10% commission on each transaction, Back Market facilitates sales from more than 600 refurbishing outfits worldwide, including multinational behemoth Brightstar, mom-and-pop shops, and Apple’s and Dyson’s refurbishing units. Products must pass a 23-point test before being sold on the platform, and new sellers go through a trial period with restricted sales until they prove themselves reliable.
In Europe, Back Market is a successful and trusted platform: Gross sales grew from $4 million in 2015 to $120 million in 2017. In 2018, after the U.S. launch, they reached $300 million, a figure the company hopes to double this year. (Back Market does not release its U.S. sales figures.) But Americans will be harder to sway than their European peers. Jeff Fieldhack, a research director at Counterpoint Research, says that carriers in the U.S. have squeezed more money out of refurbished phones than their Chinese and European counterparts, but put most of their effort into selling new phones. The emergence of Back Market, he says, is forcing everyone to take refurbishing more seriously.
Back Market is wooing Americans by offering a more efficient and formalized user experience than existing megaplatforms such as eBay and Amazon. Phones are rated on aesthetic appearance, and searches on Back Market only surface the best-priced option in each category—allowing users to compare the price of, say, a scratched 32 GB iPhone 6 with one that looks new. Each purchase comes with a 30-day return policy and a minimum warranty of six months in the U.S., and customer-care representatives field complaints. This is, in short, not the flea-market atmosphere of eBay.
The company is also expanding its services, including theft-and-breakage plans (a first for pre-owned phones in the French market) and warranty extensions. “Marketplaces in Europe are now following in Back Market’s footsteps and putting more into the refurbished market,” says Albert Mita, VP of e-commerce for buyback giant PCS Wireless.
But beyond finding new customers, the big idea is to “free the world from tech obsolescence,” says CCO Vianney Vaute, who cofounded the company with Hug de Larauze and CTO Quentin Le Brouster. Back Market’s internal motto is “Screw New.” The founders invoke efforts such as American Express’s recycled-plastic credit card as signs of greater changes afoot. Indeed, nearly half of U.S. consumers said “they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment,” according to a 2018 Nielsen study. And unlike most organic and fair-trade products, Back Market’s ethical tech costs less than the alternative.
A recent rebrand by a London-based agency known for its work with Airbnb, unveiled in June, has amplified Back Market’s eco-messaging. Its website now proudly announces the company’s vision as “redemption through circulation” of old devices through the economy. “We are on this mission more than ever,” Vaute says.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.