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A Smartphone With Social Values

If a start-up can deliver a phone handset without exploiting anyone, then it shouldn’t be beyond the tech giants.

By Jeremy Williams

It’s funny how selective ethical consumption can be. More and more foods are available as Fairtrade, and companies are springing up trading in ethical fashion. The toy industry is just as dependent on sweatshop labour as fashion, but fairly traded toys are much more niche. On electronics, there are almost no ethical alternatives. I assume this is because it’s a whole lot easier to set up a business selling artisan coffee or shirts from a seamstresses’ co-op than it is to start making your own fairly traded smartphones.

So kudos to Fairphone, who are doing exactly that. They work directly with mines in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia to ensure that the tungsten, tantalum, and cobalt that they require are responsibly sourced. The phone is designed to be remade into a new one when it reaches the end of its lifespan, through Closing the Loop. It’s an open design so that it can be repaired or upgraded. The process is entirely transparent. If you want to know how much the tin miner in DRC or the assembly line worker in China got paid, that information is available. So is an exact breakdown of what the phone contains, and the phone is priced to reflect the cost of production.

How much is that, you may ask? It’s priced at €310 from Fairphone, £250 from the UK’s Co-operative Mobile. And don’t think that because it’s ethically traded it’s made out of bamboo and sisal either. It’s a quad core, dual sim, touchscreen design with an 8 megapixel camera. It’s operating system currently runs on Android 4.2, although the team are investigating other open source alternatives.

Interestingly, Fairphone began as an awareness-raising project about conflict minerals. As it went on, the team realised that to really make the point, they ought to actually make a phone. It would be the only way to get to grips with the issues and know what the challenges are. That’s quite remarkable when you think about it. It’s very easy to point fingers at business from the sidelines. Getting involved and modelling the change is another thing altogether. “Fairphone’s road map toward creating a fairer phone is exactly this,” says communications director Tessa Wernink. “We use the phone as a storytelling artifact. It makes it possible to open up the supply chain, understand it, and take action in order to create lasting, systemic change.”

Fairphone successfully crowd-funded the initial production of 5,000 handsets in 2013. One year later, there are now 50,000 satisfied Fairphone owners across Europe, with the company operating as a social enterprise based in Holland. They’re planning a second edition of the Fairphone next year, available worldwide in 2016.

The Fairphone handset is a real landmark product. It’s the first fairly traded electronics product I’m aware of, and has set a new standard for the rest of the industry. It couldn’t come too soon either, because reform is urgently needed in the electronics industry. According to research by Oekom, manufacturers of phones and computers are more likely to be in breach of international labour standards than the textiles industry, which receives greater scrutinised. Of the forty or so companies surveyed in Electronics Industry Trends (EIT), only one could demonstrate that it paid the living wage. That was Nokia.

There is progress, too, in some other quarters. Intel recently announced that they were working to eliminate conflict minerals from their processors. Apple have been caught out a few times and are making important steps towards transparency and fairer labour practices; they’re the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association. Just as Nike or Starbucks have been in the past, Apple are something of a lightning rod for campaigners’ anger on this subject. That gives them an opportunity to model positive change, but we shouldn’t let the focus on Apple let others off the hook. They may have scored a C on workers’ rights in the EIT, but big companies like Amazon Kindle, Nintendo, and Canon score a miserable F.

There’s no excuse for that any more. If a small start-up can deliver a phone handset without exploiting anyone in the process, then it shouldn’t be beyond the might of giant companies like Amazon or Samsung. Fairphone haven’t just delivered the world’s first fairly traded phone handset — they’ve swept away the industry’s excuses. Ethical electronics are possible.

A version of this article was previously published on Make Wealth History in 2014 and republished on the Post growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.




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Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).

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