By Julia Di Simone
Our actions affect the earth and its people, and growing understanding of climate change and global human rights have lead people to conserve water, eat more plant foods and care about the people who manufacture our clothes. You can ditch fast fashion brands like Forever 21 and H&M, but when it comes to buying a smartphone, it can feel like there are no ethical options available.
Consumers are increasingly aware that manufacturing smartphones damages the health of the planet and the workers along the supply chain. In 2010, Apple came under fire when international media shared stories of 18 suicide attempts at Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China. Foxconn is a major electronics manufacturer contracted by Apple, and the reporting on these suicides brought light to the sweatshop conditions under which workers manufactured the then-coveted iPhone 4.
In the midst of this ethical dilemma, the Fairphone emerged on the scene in 2013. The Netherlands-based company considers the impact of their smartphone on the people who build them and the planet. Fairphone prioritizes creating an ethical phone from the mining of its components, to the phone’s manufacturing and the phone’s entire life cycle.
The gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten required in smartphones is typically sourced from mines in Central Africa, and the mining industry generally presents dangerous working conditions, causes heavy pollution and uses children as laborers. Fairphone is aware of the current unethical practices, and moves to source less hazardous materials, use recycled materials whenever possible and source from mines with sustainable practices.
With most products we purchase, we as consumers do not know where the materials were sourced or who procured them. Thus, it is difficult to hold companies accountable and ensure they practice good ethics across their supply chain. Fairphone’s supply chain for their tungsten is available on their website, so users can see that the tungsten in their phones is mined in Rwanda, refined in Austria and incorporated into the Fairphone in three different factories across China.
Fairphone also practices transparency by publishing assessments of their factories on their website for consumers to read. In order to protect the health of the factory employees building Fairphones and the consumers using them, Fairphone continually works to eliminate hazardous chemicals from their product.
Fairphone is revolutionizing the priorities of the typical smartphone company not only by supporting ethical treatment of workers but also by ensuring their product is long-lasting. Nowadays, smartphones are treated as somewhat disposable products, as anyone who has ever visited Apple’s Genius Bar knows. If your iPhone’s battery stops holding a charge, the Apple store will help you acquire a completely new phone rather than replacing the battery. iPhones are intentionally manufactured to be replaced rather than repaired, requiring users to cycle through new phones with greater frequency. According to Fairphone’s website, the average smartphone owner in the United States upgrades to a new phone every 18 months. The Fairphone, on the other hand, is designed to last for five years.
The goal of the the Fairphone is that users will not be forced to replace it when their smartphone becomes broken or out-of-date. Instead, users can repair their phones in the comfort of their own homes. If you crack the screen of your Fairphone, you can order a new screen from the website, and install it on your own by using basic tools and following an instructional video. Fairphone’s website champions that users need not have any repair skills to change their own phone screen in one minute. Replacing broken or outdated parts of an iPhone isn’t something the average user would feel comfortable attempting, but the Fairphone is actually designed to be repaired and updated over the years by its owner. Fairphone sells individual parts, from screens to batteries to headphone jacks, so users can replace broken parts or upgrade to better specifications as they become available.
Fairphone’s 100,000+ users across Europe prove that people care about the ethics of the products they buy. There is a market for a smartphone built on the principles of long-lasting design, fair materials, good working conditions and proper reuse and recycling of the product. As of now, there are no plans for a United States release of the Fairphone, though hopefully a U.S. model will be available someday.