The real ethical decision? Have a good idea and get it copied

The gold mined in a mine that destroyed part of the rainforest, the cobalt that was processed under unacceptable conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the copper that turned the water of a river red in Chile, the rare earths that enriched the soil irreversibly contaminated China. All of this is collected in factories where social, trade union and human rights are at risk, and finally 80 percent of it is thrown into a landfill after an average of eighteen months of use for some products. This is the concentration of social and environmental harm that we risk when we take our smartphone with us. It is this influence that makes a product so important that from a commercial perspective it is little more than irrelevant, less than 0.5 percent of global sales: it’s called Fairphone and it’s a Dutch social enterprise project. In 2023, on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, it reached the fifth generation. “We celebrated the tenth anniversary, but Fairphone begins its journey even before it is a company, as a simple opinion and activism campaign to call on companies to make smartphones more sustainable,” explains Miquel Ballester, co-founder and head of development at the ‘agency. “Then we asked ourselves: Why don’t we try to produce one ourselves? In recent years we have managed to prove something important: a different electronics industry is possible, we can play by the rules that everyone plays by, those of market demands, and we can be fair to people and the planet.” Fairphone, based in Amsterdam and employing seventy people, is a microscopic company compared to the giants of the industry and has a special character because its goal is to be copied. It’s not just about sales – today there are just over 100,000 smartphone owners – but also about the standards that should be dictated to the market. There are four areas of intervention: sustainable materials, socially and environmentally sustainable factories, circular economy and design aimed at longevity. Fairphone 5 comes to market with a five-year warranty and eight years of software support: the opposite of the planned obsolescence that makes the market so dynamic but ensures that smartphones age in the hands of consumers in less than three years. This is exactly what the European Union is trying to do with the guidelines, namely to combat the rapid aging of devices in order to encourage us to buy new devices.

The parts of the Fairphone 5

Longevity always depends on repairability and DIY is encouraged at Fairphone. The smartphone is not a single block, but consists of ten modular parts and can be opened with a screwdriver. The idea behind this is a user who, if not exactly an activist, is at least more active than the average person. “Relying solely on activists doesn’t save the world: when consumers are happy with an ethical product, you get a lot closer,” says Ballester. But not once Fairphone From an ethical point of view it is perfect. Only 14 out of 70 materials (or 42 percent by weight) come from sustainable and ethical sources. And only two thirds of these 14 materials are recycled. There have been independent investigations that have examined the defects and damage, which even a Fairphone can effect: This is, to a certain extent, proof of the success of the argument. The higher the bar is raised, the more the requirements for a transformative path increase. Fairphone For example, like all other mobile devices, it is made in China. Why not in Europe or in areas where working conditions are easier to monitor? Ballester tries to explain: “Our mission is to change the industry and this industry produces in Asia, they would look at us like crazy if we said we were doing it in Europe, the value chains are too long for each There are 75 different suppliers, all in Asia. 30 years of globalization cannot be reversed.” The three factories that work with Fairphone in China offer subcontractors wages that are above the minimum wage.

Cobalt mines in the Congo. ©Courtesy of Fairphone

Cobalt comes from Congo, the world’s main producer, where a fifth of the mines are artisanal and the conditions of child slavery are also documented by NGOs. “With other partners (including Tesla, LG and Google, Ed) we started Fair Cobalt Alliance: We are working to improve the health and safety conditions of the mines, which will definitely not disappear because it takes time to achieve a 100% circular economy. In the meantime, we can at least try to get people to work in safer conditions.” It’s the dilemma of sustainability: every time one problem is solved, others arise. “Our learning curve runs through suppliers, raw materials, working conditions and the commitment to changing the laws in Europe.” At the risk of sounding paternalistic, we are here to set an example for the industry to emulate. When we started, they told us: You’ll never succeed, it’ll be too expensive for the public. Instead, we went ahead and created a mid-range product.”

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