To Be Fair: Dissecting The Ethical Smartphone

Fairphone entered the smartphone market in 2013 with their first Fairphone, intent on cleaning up the tech industry's notoriously unethical supply chains. With their new smartphone releasing later this year, what progress have they made?

Feature by Stewart McIver | 20 Jul 2015
  • Fairphone_Recycling

Fairphone is a singularly unique smartphone company. Their first phone sold 60,000 units, a respectable figure, but compared to surprise hit and alternative independently manufactured phones such as the OnePlus One (over 1,000,000 sold) it is hardly a commercial success. If Fairphone were a company fixated on market share and growth this would be a problem, but they want to do more than compete in the smartphone market. They want to tear it down to the grass roots level and build it up again.

Their goal is to remove conflict minerals from their supply chain, an endeavour that could diplomatically be described as ‘stalled’ in the rest of the industry. The problem lies in finding partners who share Fairphone's commitment ethically sourced materials, and who in turn share these values with their own partners. Perhaps a supplier four or five steps down the chain does not share this viewpoint on ethical production. If they're willing to use dangerous, child or even slave labour for their raw materials, why not lie to obtain a lucrative new contract too? To prevent this behaviour, Fairphone had to become as much auditors as manufacturers.

Speaking of the providence of goods and unscrupulous suppliers may seem patronising, but I'm using it for emphasis on the following figure: 34. That is the number of employees working at Dutch based Fairphone. That's about as many as are employed in your nearest Apple Store, but are producing a phone, auditing a supply chain, and with luck changing an industry. Any success at all would be commendable, but their sales and goals already achieved are undeniably impressive.

A warning to temper your expectations is necessary here. As yet, Fairphone cannot produce a fair-trade phone, due to the limitations mentioned already. Their first phone did ship with conflict-free tin and tantalum, two key elements in phone production, while the Fairphone 2, due to ship this Autumn is shaping up to add gold and tungsten to that tally. This is from end to end of the manufacturing process, but falls short of their stated goal by a considerable margin.

While marketing the phone using the moniker Fairphone may be prematurely leveraging its ethical capital, the company is open and realistic with its current and projected status. Where major smartphone manufacturers operate under a veil of secrecy, Fairphone bombards the consumer with information regarding their products.  This ranges from manufacturing schedules for the physical device, to their dealings with suppliers, how they handle lapses in their quality control, and even lobbying of NGOs. Their many goals are available for scrutiny on their website, noting which have been achieved and why they have yet to accomplish others.

As for the company's products themselves, Fairphone faces a significant uphill struggle beyond being a minnow in an industry of giants. The first version reviewed poorly, with its capabilities compared to a mid-range Android phone, for double the price. That’s quite a premium, despite the worthy cause. It’s important to bear in mind that the phone in your hand is the most environmentally friendly available to you. Current phones, based on figures from HTC and Apple, suggest that 65-85% of emissions occur during manufacture as opposed to during their lifetime.

This is where the Fairphone 2 comes in. You might have heard of Google's Project Ara, a device designed with modular, replaceable components. The idea is to increase the lifespan and ease the maintenance of a phone. The difference between Project Ara project and Fairphone 2 is simple: Fairphone 2 has a release date, whereas Project Ara is still considered an experiment by Google, allegedly piloting in Puerto Rico this year. Considering Google’s handling of Glass and the Explorer program, you might wait a long time for it. It might never happen.

You will pay a premium for this unique design though, with the Fairphone 2 projected to cost €525, and using a generation old Snapdragon 801. Despite the up-front cost, the modules should make it a bit cheaper to run in the long run, with the screen (and any other part) designed to be easily replaced at home, by an amateur, with standard equipment. There is no need to find a store capable of repairing your phone, or even sending it off to the manufacturer for repair. Olivier Hebert, Fairphone’s Chief Technology Officer suggests that above and beyond simplifying repairs, enabling owners to do so themselves means they “will feel a stronger connection to their phones and feel more empowered to keep them alive and well for a long time.”

Suggested upgrades such as adding NFC or fingerprint readers modules or updating the processor are ambitious goals, but likely to remain as concepts alone. These aftermarket, optional components might only interest small fraction of an already small user base, and so expending resources to develop them might prove too risky for Fairphone. The replacement parts should be guaranteed, though, given the device is relying on them in the first place.

So where does this leave Fairphone then? Surprisingly, in a better position than they themselves realise. Their upcoming phone may propel their cause into the spotlight and elicit much needed change in the smartphone market and Fairphone 2 itself has a unique selling point, one which large manufacturers cannot emulate given the damage it would do to their 2 year sales cycle.

Fairphone 2 is destined to be a niche product; its cost and small market reach will both impact on its potential for success. That’s not to say it won’t be much loved by a loyal userbase who share the sentiment engendered by the company's mission statement, and admire the progress already made towards achieving a fair-trade phone. Whether or not Fairphone 2 is for you, theirs is an attitude I suspect anyone aware of the unfair, illegal or even deadly business practice endemic in the tech industry today wishes was common practice across the industry.