We all know that our electrical goods are ethically compromised. We know that smartphones may use more than 60 different metals, ripped out of the ground by child labourers and fitted together by people working in harrowing and exploitative conditions.
Yet we all have a smartphone. We all engage in an act of collective forgetting, unable to square our respect for human dignity with our love of instant communication. There are so many problems in the world, we sheepishly tell ourselves. Why focus on one with no solutions?
As it turns out, there is a solution. A very good one.
Fairphone is a small Dutch enterprise that was set up in 2009 as a “response to the growing demand for a more ethical, reliable and sustainable phone.”
The aim is to produce smartphone-quality specs while improving factory conditions, ethical supply chains and mining, and the ability to repair the device — so that consumers don’t have to trade in for a new model every year when something breaks.
The Fairphone 3, released in September, will cost €450 (just under $500) — around $245 more than the widely-considered best budget phone on the market, the Moto G7. Wired reports that the Fairphone has very similar specifications, including HD screen with Gorilla Glass, a 12 megapixel rear camera, an 8 megapixel front camera, and a 5.7 inch screen.
The constituent metals are sourced responsibly from conflict-free areas, where possible in partnership with so-called “artisanal miners”. The other elements are recycled.
Although it has only sold 175,000 units to date, Wired adds that the company aims to send out 42,000 units of the phone by the end of 2019 and scale up further next year. The company also expects its lifecycle to be up to five years, during which time users would trade in their batteries two or three times.
Fairphone says that by keeping the same phone for five years, users could lower their CO2 emissions by 30% compared to a cycle of continually upgrading their handsets.
— Fairphone (@Fairphone) August 27, 2019
Changing the rules
Fairphone is run by Eva Gouwens, a senior executive whose experience working for large multinationals taught her a lot about “how these systems embrace and resist change.”
In a blog post, she writes that she’s inspired by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick, who “transformed” the way people think about ethics and sustainability of personal care products.
“She once said: ‘If you think you’re too small to make an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.’
“That’s how Fairphone started: as an ethically-minded mosquito in a room full of giants.”
In an accompanying video, she explains how this drive has affected her view of the business world. “In the past 10 years, I experienced what it’s like if social enterprise really aims to change the rules of an industry — what a power that actually brings,” comments Gouwens.
“And I learned how much fun it is to build a business as a source for good in the world.”
Fairphone has partnered with Arima, a factory in Taiwan, to conduct the final assembly of the new Fairphone 3. The company says it works with Arima to improve employee satisfaction, employee retention, and their working conditions.
Fairphone pays €1.50 per unit sold as a bonus to Arima’s employees — not just those working on Fairphone lines — on top of their regular salary. It says that if other companies working with the factory did the same, every single employee would be paid a living wage.
It’s also worked with independent NGOs to ensure there are key benefits, including organised democratic elections for employee representatives; health and safety training for employees; and increases in food subsidy.
One blog post on the Fairphone site says that by improving conditions for and with employees working on the production lines, “we are taking a unique approach to change the heart of the electronics sector in China.”
“Imagine a world in which every phone brand rewarded factories for increases in worker satisfaction. A world in which every phone brand cared whether their partners were paying production line workers a living wage, and stepped in with additional funding to ensure they did?
“The result would be transformative. That’s not just the world we envision for the future, it’s the world that every Fairphone user is helping build today.”
Wired says that Fairphone is already having an impact on the industry, with Google committing to using recyclable materials in its hardware by 2022. While this is evidently not the same as using recycled materials, it’s a small movement — one of many examples of the progress an ethical mosquito can have on sleeping giants.