Fairphone: A smartphone with a story

Minerals sourced from the Democratic Repulic of Congo (Fairphone)
Minerals sourced from the Democratic Repulic of Congo (Fairphone)

Smartphones are a staple object for most people in the Western world, but with such high demand questions have been raised over the ethics of their production.

In 2012, issues such as suicide nets and riots within Chinese Foxconn iPhone factories were brought to the world's attention.

This Christmas the second version of one of the world's first ethically-oriented smartphone began rolling out in Europe, with the goal to make the process of how each phone made its way into people's hands as transparent as possible.

Fairphone is a social enterprise based in Amsterdam aimed at connecting smartphone users to the history of their phone, choosing to mine parts, design and manufacture a phone that provides fair trade and fair working environments.

Each phone has made a long and multi-national journey to get to the household of its buyer.

Forty different minerals are sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the making of Fairphone 2.

The mining sector in DRC is known for conflict minerals used for tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, extracted from the Eastern Congo, and passed through intermediaries before being bought by multinational electronic companies.

These are called conflict minerals because they are determined by the Secretary of State to be financing conflict in the country.

(Fairphone)

Fairphone wants to focus on sourcing conflict-free minerals, but right in the heart of the conflict zone.

This is why Fairphone began. Back in 2009, businessmen Bas van Abel and Peter van der Mark wanted to create a conflict minerals awareness campaign when frustrated at no outcomes from petitioning. They both agreed a smartphone is the best way to tell the story. They began with Fairphone 1 as a result of crowd-funding.

"After years of campaigning and research we realised we needed to make a phone as a tool to open up the supply chain and start tackling issues across the chain," says Katie Ramsbottom from communications projects and events at Fairphone.

Co-founder Mr van Abel says in the making of the first Fairphone, they had very little control over how it was made, little influence in choosing the partners or suppliers and limited input regarding materials.

"The few 'fairer' elements that did end up in the phone, like conflict-free tin and tantalum, represented a significant amount of effort from the entire team," he says.

This propelled the team to develop their own design for Fairphone 2.

Fairphone aims to buy from local initiatives, and increase the employment for small-scale miners in the DRC, as well as extending the lifespan of the phone so constant upgrades aren't necessary.

(Fairphone)

The phones are then manufactured in China, a country where the electronics supply chain is most active. The enterprise aims to provide a manufacturing process that allows the workers to have training and workshops, and voice opinion.

"We raise funds through the sales of the phone and reinvest profits in social innovation in the electronics supply chain," says Ms Ramsbottom.

Around 4000 phones were expected to be shipped before Christmas and another 6000 by the end of 2015, but the company ran into some delays.

They had to reorder custom parts, and another component issue after that required it to be remade by the supplier.

The phone currently sits at €525 (NZ$1168). This includes an LCD screen, Android, dual SIM, 4G LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

So far around 60,000 Fairphones have been sold.

At this stage, Fairphone doesn't have plans to being selling in New Zealand. Without external funding the social enterprise has decided to focus sales within Europe.

"Although the Fairphone is not sold in New Zealand, we believe the fairest phone is the one in your pocket. In other words, the longer we keep our mobile devices, the less negative and environmental impact we will create," says Ms Ramsbottom.

"New Zealanders can also start asking questions to mobile companies about the social and environmental impact of producing smartphones to show that there is a consumer demand for fairer electronics."

 More information can be found here.

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