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’re working directly with mines in Rwanda, DRC and Zambia to ensure that the tungsten, tantallum and cobalt that they require is 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 325 euros, and you can pre-order one here. 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. The team are investigating Open Source OS, but the launch version will run Android.
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: we use the phone as a storytelling artifact” says communications director Tessa Wernink. “It makes it possible to open up the supply chain, understand it, and take action in order to create lasting, systemic change.”
FairPhone is now a social business based in Holland, and taking pre-orders on the smartphone handset. They need 5,000 orders to go into production. If they make it, it will be a real landmark product. It’ll be the first fairly traded electronics product I’m aware of (does anyone else know of any?) and set a new standard for the rest of the industry. It’s a necessary experiment – 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 gets scrutinised more closely. If FairPhone gets off the ground, we won’t just know more about these sorts of issues, we’ll have a tangible demonstration that an ethical smartphone is possible.