#12 power
Bibi Bleekemolen / Emma Furniss / Eva-Maria Verfürth

A Fairer Mobile Phone? Fairphone!

I’ll bet you don’t know where your mobile phone came from, do you? Do you think its production might have caused conflict and pain? You probably guessed that was the case. But: there might be an alternative soon.

Today, electronic devices accompany us every step of the way. We work on our computer, heat our food in the microwave and communicate on our mobile phone. But in most cases, we have no clue where they came from. Who actually made them? How are they produced?

The technology supply chain is complex, understanding how it works takes so much time, and in the end, you can’t change things anyway. Or – can you?

The founders of “Fairphone” are giving it a try: they are taking the first steps towards producing a fairer mobile phone. Don’t believe it? This is what Emma and Bibi from Fairphone told us about the idea:

Emma, Bibi, why did you start Fairphone, and not, say, Fairfridge?

Well, it could just as well have been a fridge, of course. But we wanted to try a high tech device, because there have recently been many shocking and eye-opening stories about conflict minerals being used in these electronics. We wanted to try to tackle these problems and show that transparency isn’t only possible in simpler supply chains like bananas or coffee, but also for highly complex products.

So why did you choose a phone?

We chose the phone because everybody needs one, and because we actually value its functions, like connecting people, sharing information and increasing transparency.

What are the biggest problems in the mobile phone industry?

Mainly it’s the use of conflict minerals from Africa and the disastrous working conditions in huge Chinese factories. But there’s much more to be improved: Many phones are difficult to repair, and the companies control the repair options. Often it is easier or cheaper to buy a new phone than to have the broken component repaired. Think about the e-waste that this creates! In Asia and Africa, people often burn cables to extract the copper and sell it on. But burning plastic cables is highly toxic.

Fairphone is trying to produce a mobile phone in a more responsible way. So – what is fair about Fairphone?

  1. The first one, we call it Precious materials: We try to ensure that the production of the materials we use, primarily the minerals, is not financing armed groups.
  2. Second is Made with care: We try to respect workers’ rights on the assembly line in China.
  3. We make Clear deals: We try to be as transparent as possible. We blog about almost every step we take, we publish a list of our suppliers and explain why we chose them.
  4. We develop a Smart design: Fairphone is not a throwaway product. We will be selling spare parts and a repair manual, so that phones can be repaired and upgraded. We don’t include adapters, for instance, since many people still have one at home. Furthermore, Fairphone has a dual sim option, so that nobody has to use two different phones anymore.
  5. It has Lasting value: Our long-term vision is to make the Fairphone entirely recyclable.

Issue #12

It is somehow astonishing that you, as a small group of people, claim to be able to achieve what huge companies don’t: control over a highly complex international value chain.

Oh no, we don’t control the whole value chain, of course. You know, we’re just 12 people working at Fairphone in Amsterdam. We don’t have the answers to the problems, nor do we have the capacity to do everything ourselves. What we are doing is creating a community: we’re involving as many initiatives as possible.

In Eastern Congo, where your tantalum and tin are extracted, armed groups own most of the mines. How do you deal with this situation? What sort of community do you create?

We found two initiatives that coordinate mines in Eastern Congo. They’re called Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI) and Solutions for Hope. Their products are conflict-free and the money earned is re-invested by the mineworkers themselves. Both initiatives are very young though, so mistakes can still happen.

What about the 28 other minerals you use?

To be honest, we don’t know where they come from. These are tasks for the future – we’ll have to tackle them one by one. We are currently looking at ways to integrate fair gold into our supply chain.

If you have no idea where they come from, that means that there is still a risk of conflict minerals being used in the Fairphone, right?

Yes, that’s true. We are working towards fair production of the phones and making improvements, but guaranteeing full fairness will take time. we don’t hide the fact that there also might be child labour used in our production chain. But we are honest about that and discuss it with our customers. That is one of the unique things about Fairphone.

Why is this unique?

Well, have you ever heard a company’s spokesperson say 'yes, of course there’s child labour in our production chain'? No. We’re probably the only mobile phone company that publicly admits these problems. We believe that we can only address them if we admit them first. This transparency will be the game-changer of the industry.

“Have you ever heard a company’s spokesperson say “yes, of course there’s child labour in our production chain”? No. We’re probably the only mobile phone company publicly admitting these problems.”

Why do you produce in China if you know that working conditions are harsh there?

In order to make a positive impact, you have to work where negative impact is felt. If we did it in Europe, who would it help? Furthermore, all high tech facilities are in China, and we’re just too small a company to set up a production base here in Europe. So we chose the company that suited us best. The owners liked our approach, they accepted us as clients although we only placed a small order, and they were willing to let us supply our own tin and tantalum.

You just started your first production cycle with 25,000 phones to be delivered in December. That is a lot for a small company, but not enough to change the world. Do you think you can influence bigger mobile phone companies?

That’s the plan! Many of them are very interested in changing things, but it is very difficult for them. But if we introduce conflict-free tin to the market, then they can buy it too. Furthermore, they can learn from our experience and copy our methods of transparency and publicly discussing problems. We really have so much dialogue with our customers.

What are your next steps?

We’ll have the same action areas, but take them to the next level. For instance, we need to make sure that the other minerals we use are conflict-free too. The Chinese factory we work with has a lot of suppliers and sub-suppliers, so we still have to visit and check all of them. Furthermore, because of the complexity of the supply chain of smartphones, there are still a lot of issues that we might not yet be aware of and that we want to address in the future.

To cover production costs, you used a sort of crowdfunding approach: you asked people to order and pay for their phones in advance. This call for orders came out last May. What was the reaction like – did many people order a Fairphone?

Our target was to reach 5,000 purchases by June 14th, but we registered more than 10,000 orders in that time span. That was really impressive.

“There’s a really giant movement behind Fairphone!”

So people seem to be very interested in the product

Yes, they are. You know, usually it’s always the same people who are interested in fair trade issues. But behind Fairphone, there’s a really giant movement! Although we didn’t write many press releases, international media keep approaching us. Furthermore, our consumers have been our best ambassadors. They are part of the community, and as we are always open to discussion, they feel that their suggestions are taken into account.

How do the tech-savvy people receive your idea?

They are quite interested too. They are particularly keen on learning more about the open source software we’re using.

You only ship to Europe. Have you ever thought of expanding to Africa, Asia, or the Americas?

We do get a lot of requests from other countries. We’ve gotten some from Mexico, Australia and Korea, for example. And yes, our plan is to expand, but we’ll do so step-by-step, starting in Europe.

All photos are copyright Fairphone.

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