Growing from 5 employees in 2013 to 65 (and growing) in 2018, Amsterdam-based Fairphone is now a global leader at (more) ethical and (more) sustainable smartphone production. The company has started with a consumer community of 25 000 firm believers who has invested around 350 Euro each into a product that was not produced yet, and backed a startup which had never made a phone before. Silly? Risky? There had to be some magic behind it. What is the product so many people wanted to grasp with their hands?
Hello, industry! Why don’t you want me to open my smartphone?
In 2013, Bas van Abel – impact entrepreneur, maker (as he likes to call himself) and founder of Fairphone – pointed during his TEDx talk that it is unfair that smartphone manufacturers don’t want us to open our devices and “screw” with them ourselves using screwdrivers when they break. He saw that as an act of turning consumers into unconscious users that can barely scratch the surface of the devices they think they posses. He marked:
If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.
It is in fact great food for thought, since many of us believe we are actually becoming owners of things, once we pay for them. I would ironically argue that the idea of product-as-a-service, trending now among cradle-to-cradle business owners – was put into practice long time ago, but with a malicious way of thinking behind it.
In fact, how misleading is the prevalent view that we are owners of stuff, since – indeed – due to the way those devices are “packed”, and based on the sourcing of materials they are made of – we cannot fix them on our own or ask more skilfull neighbour to do that for us. Instead, we exchange our devices every two years or so, even though the previous ones are still working just fine, without asking a single “why?”. The way the smartphones and electronics industry works makes us believe this is normal.
Questioning the above status quo and seeing it as a design flaw, Bas van Abel started a company where he wanted to do the opposite: build a modular smartphone that lasts (longer) and is fixable by its user. As we can read inside the first Impact Report the company have published in the beginning of December: to improve the electronics industry, he had to become a part of it.
Fairphone 2 is designed in a way that the user can fix it by exchanging broken parts into working ones. The company sells replaceable modules along with brand new devices as well as encourage their clients to recycle old phones by sending them in to Fairphone headquarters. Video source: Fairphone | YouTube
Google that: smartphone specs, Samsung vs Apple, best budget phones 2018. How about… materials?
Phones longevity is only one issue Fairphone is tackling doing their business. Another one is material supply chain for smartphones production. Upon deciding on a new smartphone we are basically interested in its specs against other trending models and the monetary price. It’s basically easy to get that information: every smartphone brand is happy to show what’s “inside” the device when it comes to technological advancements.
Notwithstanding, we never quite ask ourselves what is the social and environmental cost behind our phones and on what kind materials are those advancements based on. Enough to say, many of them does not have any equivalent and are not infinite. Hm…
For a past few years we were alarmed by media that the industry behind smartphone production is not quite shiny and smooth as our devices are. It’s rather dirty, polluted and against international conventions on human rights and labor safety standards. Lately, Mark Wilson from Fast Company added to the discussion by marking: Smartphones are particularly insidious for a few reasons. With a two-year average life cycle, they’re more or less disposable. The problem is that building a new smartphone–and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them–represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade.
The problem is that building a new smartphone–and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them–represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years.
The huge carbon footprint smartphones production is generating, brings the issue of mining for minerals our phones are built of. How many of us can tell which part of new iPhone is made of cobalt, titanium, copper or gold? I can’t. On the other extreme, how many of us will quickly recognize the operating system, type of processor or RAM capacity our devices are running on? We have lost the connection with materiality of stuff we use, therefore we are unable to imagine material flows behind them.
Smartphones have become ubiquitous. Since the first batch were sold in 2007, more people now own (or have an access to it) a smartphone than a working toilet. Latest reports show that the population of mobile devices have overexceeded human population, reaching more than 8 billion. Image source: idgconnect.com (based on data collected by Greenpeace).
OK, we know a bit more about the minerals inside mobile devices, but what about places they come from? Fairphone – as any other smartphone manufacturer – has made a huge effort to literally dig into supply chain of their devices components. Since 2013 onwards, collaborating with Waag Society, the company is showing the inconvenient truth regarding material sourcing for electronics industry.
Firstly, some of the minerals you’ll find inside smartphones, such as gold, cobalt, coltan (for tantalum) and cassiterite (for tantalum), are named as “conflict minerals”. That means they comes from countries involved in military conflicts, and buying those materials for electronics by-parts manufacturing is directly financing those conflicts. The well known example is Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where abuse of human rights, child labor and millions of deaths related to mining for those minerals (controlled by illegal armed groups), lead European Union to force electronics companies to check their supply chain against mineral suppliers from conflict areas (the law will come into effect in 2021). How Dutch smartphone startup could make a difference?
Up to now no other smartphone manufacturer has done so much as Fairphone to understand the difficult supply chain for electronics production. With Fairphone’s Smartphone Material Profiles study you can learn where are the minerals sourced, how much are miners paid and what can be done better to secure labor conditions and increase organisations that pay fair price for those minerals. Source: Smartphone Material Profiles by Fairphone
Since cobalt or tantalum are largely sourced in DRC (51% and 42% of global production, respectively), Fairphone decided to investigate the labor conditions instead of turning away from dangerous and often illegal mining sites in DRC. They have been travelling there since 2011 to better understand the “conflict minerals” market and in 2016 they have achieved the first-ever Fairtrade gold supply chain for the consumer electronics industry.
Smartphone recycling and circular design by Fairphone
Since we know a bit more about how the materials for smartphones are sourced and what Fairphone is doing to raise customers and industry awareness on this matter, let’s jump to another vision the company is trying to make true: circular design inside electronics industry. What on Earth is it?
Video source: Fairphone | YouTube
I guess any electronics production process as we know it, is against circular design concept by logic. Circular design enthusiasts, to put it simply, try to figure out new schemes for product life cycle that say “bye-bye” to a concept of “waste”. With circular approach to design every material used for production of goods can be eventually recycled, reused or upgraded when the “life” of a product is close to an end, in an infinite closed loop. Therefore we can speak of resources, rather than waste.
Why we do not recycle our smartphones since there are so many valuable minerals inside? It is because smartphones are basically designed for use, but not for reuse or recycling. That’s why it is hard to open them, repair them or remove some broken parts. Uhm. Yes, it’s again about financial profit that leads to designing and assembling more and more and more.
Why we do not recycle our smartphones since there are so many valuable minerals inside? It is because smartphones are basically designed for use, but not necessarily for reuse or recycling.
Fairphone has been experimenting with recycling introducing New Life Edition for their own. They were collecting used Fariphone 2 devices and re-manufacturing them into fully working ones by exchanging parts that were out of order, and then selling them again for smaller price. Another initiative was to hire academic experts to conduct a study on recyclability of Fairphone 2, so it doesn’t inevitably end up in Agbogbloshie e-waste dump in Ghana, or similar places.
Given the environmental cost and material recovery rates, they have found out the best recycling option for Fairphone 2 will be dismantling the device and selective smelting of its parts. Therefore, Fairphone promotes recycling among their customers: anyone who will send them their old smartphone will get a €45 discount voucher for Fairphone 2.
I know it is hard to do anything about the way the electronics industry works from a consumer stand, but given all the great job Fairphone has been doing for a past few years, I have learned we can do at least few things:
Care for your smartphone: update it regularly to extend its lifespan and protect it from breaking up. Many people worked hard to mine precious materials you’ll find inside.
Every time you’re being tempted to buy a new device, make sure if you really need one: does your current phone works just fine? What can you do to make it work faster and smoother?
Look for recycling centers where you can donate your used phone, give it to someone who need it, if it’s still working fine, or access a €45 discount voucher for Fairphone 2 at Fairphone website.
For those hungry brains who want to learn more about Fairphone and smartphone industry supply chain:
Fairphone Impact Report (Dec, 2018)
Fairphone Smartphone Material Profiles (May, 2017)
Amnesty International “Time to Recharge” (Nov, 2017) Report on abusive cobalt supply chain
Greenpeace “Guide to Greener Electronics” Report (Oct, 2017)