I am very aware that this could appear to be an advert so I’d like to start off by saying that this is in no way sponsored or endorsed by Fairphone. I am simply an enthusiastic customer!
For years I have been aware of the unethical and unsustainable nature of the production and planned obsolescence of the electronics we use every day. It has brought me a feeling of helplessness, in a way, as I could find no alternative. It is quite hard to function without a smartphone in the modern age so it was never a case of doing without but there seemed to be no way to buy a phone that did not participate in exploitative practices towards the earth and towards humanity.
That is, until I found out about the Fairphone. I had recently bought a new phone when I came across the company for the first time so I waited (almost 3 years) until my phone was no longer viable and needed replacing. When the time came, about 3 months ago, I was excited to finally be able to purchase my very own Fairphone; a phone that uses fairtrade gold, was made by people in good working conditions and being paid a living wage, is modular, more ethical and less wasteful.
Fairphone first started in 2010 as an awareness campaign about conflict minerals. They then became an independent, social enterprise company in 2013 and (as of January 2023) they are still the only company that has created a modular phone with more ethical, transparent supply chains and reduced electronic waste; when it comes to sustainability, no other smartphone seems to come close. Elizabeth Schinzel of the Austrian development organisation Südwind stated that ‘No smartphone is manufactured hundred percent fair, but Fairphone comes the closest.’ Fairphone believes that by ‘creating a more sustainable smartphone, we’re demonstrating the endless possibilities for a fairer future – for everyone’ and that they can be the catalyst to change a wasteful and highly unethical electronics industry.
Their aim is to create products that last, reduce electronic waste, put people and planet first and to use fairer materials. Further, they want to disrupt the electronics industry and more specifically the smartphone industry by challenging the norms and finding fairer ways of producing phones. They want to push manufacturers to create more sustainable phones but also to push consumers to keep their phones for longer. Van Abel suggested that although they can raise awareness and increase transparency in their own processes, ‘in the end, it is the users that have to decide whether they want to repair their broken phone or simply toss it.’
Creating a modular phone that is easily repairable by the user at home is a part of making that decision easier for the consumer. The aim is to encourage consumers to keep a phone for 5+ years rather than buying a new phone every 2 years or so – this will greatly reduce electronics waste and the resources used to manufacture new phones.
They have won many awards for their innovative designs and practices as well as having partnerships with the UN Global Compact, Responsible Minerals Initiative and the European Partnership for Responsible Minerals, among others.
They are B-Corporation certified which means they are using business to address social and environmental issues.
They are also the first and only smartphone company to be Fairtrade gold certified. This didn’t exactly surprise me but at the same time I think it’s quite horrific that there is only one smartphone brand using responsibly sourced materials.
Although awards and certifications may not be the most important part of buying a phone, these go to show that Fairphone truly are changemakers in a world that is reluctant to put sustainability and human welfare above profits.
Future proof specifications
Fairphone are moving away from the industry standard of planned obsolescence in the name of profit and towards a fairer and more ethical way of doing business.
Fairphone has stated that ‘if you can’t open it, you don’t own it’ in regards to electronic goods. They have created a modular phone that you are able to (fairly easily) repair at home, using only a screwdriver. Most of the components are replaceable and available on their website.
The video below demonstrates the ease of taking the Fairphone 4 (their most recent model) apart and replacing the charging port. The Fairphone YouTube channel also features tutorials on how to change each part of the phones.
They also claim to have future-proof specifications with 5G, Android 12, long battery life, a powerful processor and a large amount of storage. The phone also has fairly good camera quality – although I am hopeful that in the future they will develop better cameras which you can replace! I have brushed over this as I will cover more about how I’ve found using the Fairphone 4 in my next post.
One core feature of the Fairphones sustainability is its longevity. Simply, the longer you keep your phone, the smaller its environmental impact becomes. This is because 82% of the emissions of a smartphone comes from its production. Fairphone have taken this on and created a phone that is modular in terms of creating a repairable phone but also with modular upgrades. They claim to make long lasting hardware as well as providing long lasting software support so that it stays up to date through the years. An example of this is their camera upgrades for the Fairphone 3. This approach minimises the possibility of both psychological and functional obsolescence when it comes to the Fairphone.
Fairphone encourages the reuse and repair of their phones, supporting a more circular economy with less waste. According to a study carried out by the European Economic and Social Committee, only an estimated 12-15% of phones are properly recycled at the end of their life. Fairphone is aiming to create a smartphone circular economy by asking customers to return their old phones and partnering with organisations that collect electronics waste in countries without a responsible recycling infrastructure in place. They also incorporate recycled materials into Fairphones – the plastic they use in the back cover is 100% recycled.
Another element of their circularity is their new smartphone subscription option. This is only currently offered in the Netherlands but is a great way to reduce waste as they provide free repairs and replacement parts as well as recycling the phone if and when it is returned. Taking good care of the phone is encouraged with this subscription as the customer gets a discount for each damage free year they have the phone.
Electronic waste neutral
Fairphone states that the Fairphone 4 is electronic waste neutral – when a Fairphone 4 is bought, they will recycle or repair an old phone. 40% get refurbished and resold and 60% get responsibly recycled to retrieve the materials inside such as gold. Consumers can even return old phones (any phones, not just Fairphones) to be reused or recycled and receive a Fairphone giftcard.
On the Fairphone website, you can even buy 1 replacement earbud instead of a pair if you lose/break one which is a fantastic way to reduce waste and save money. They also provide charging accessories as an optional extra, this means if you already own a cable you don’t end up with unnecessary extras. Furthermore, production of the phones only begins when a certain number has been pre-ordered. Touches like this show the amount of thought and care that has been put into Fairphone as a concept, social movement and product.
Supply chains and manufacturing
Fairphone are, one material at a time, working towards fairer materials – for people and planet. They acknowledge that currently supply outweighs demand so a true circular economy is not yet feasible, however their practices are as sustainable as possible in a system that values profit over sustainability. They use recycled and responsibly mined materials with a focus on artisanal and small-scale mining that provide a living wage and safer working conditions.
Despite these efforts, Fairphone does acknowledge ‘that it is not realistic to have 100% of these materials sustainably sourced’ because of the number of materials and components in each phone. They are working towards fairer materials as well as continuing to innovate to recycle more of the materials used.
Fair trade gold and conflict free minerals
Fairphone was the first ever electronics company to use gold from https://www.fairphone.com/en/2019/09/10/fairtrade-gold-fairphone-3/ with improved working conditions.
They also co-founded the Fair Cobalt Alliance which is focused on improving the working conditions and livelihoods of artisanal cobalt miners and their communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as supporting efforts to recycle Cobalt in old batteries.
Their tin is sourced from conflict-free mines and they use 100% recycled tin in the solder of the Fairphone 4.
They source their tungsten from Rwanda, from artisanal mines and around half of their copper (in the Fairphone 3) comes from recycled sources such as old phones.
Over 50% of the plastic in the Fairphone 4 is post-consumer recycled and a large proportion of the rare earth used is also recycled.
Transparent supply chains
Fairphone has a list of supply chains/supply chain engagement reports for each phone model so far as well as an interactive map where you can explore their supply chains around the world. This is a more transparent and proactive approach to supply chain management than companies usually have. It means they have researched and chosen suppliers carefully – based on the labour practices and sustainability, not just price, of a supplier.
Good working conditions
Of course, nothing is totally fair in this world. They still produce in China with some of the production plant employees having 60 hour work weeks while earning minimum wage – this may be an improvement in some cases but it is certainly by no means ‘fair’.
Instead, they say that they are going beyond compliance when it comes to working conditions and pay. They work with ‘a variety of production partners, labor rights experts and NGOs to develop innovative programs to improve job satisfaction and representation, and to open the lines of communication between workers and management’. The supply chains used by Fairphone are certainly a step up in terms of labour rights and transparency but there is still a long way to go towards making them fair, by any meaning of the word. At this moment in time they are simply less unfair.
Behind the Screens – Fairphone & Waterbear
Fairphone, in partnership with Waterbear have produced a documentary that takes a deep dive into the smartphone supply chain with a focus on its impact to people and planet. They cover the mines, factories, the longevity of the phone and its circularity.
You can find the documentary here: https://www.fairphone.com/en/behind-the-screens/
Fairphone has a wealth of resources and research on their website. Some are linked below but to see all of their resources, click here.
The Circular Phone – ‘Legal, operational and financial solutions to unlock the potential of the ‘Fairphone-as-a-Service’ model’
Would you buy a Fairphone?
Do you think what they’re doing is enough?
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