Smartphone manufacturing is unethical. It should be well-known by now, however very few of us stop to think about what went into the production of our handset. From child labour, poor working conditions, and starvation wages for workers, to the mineral components used – with so-called “conflict minerals” often extracted from mines operated by armed militias in regions such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which support a war responsible for the murder and torture of millions of local people. And let’s not mention the amount of unsustainable energy used and dangerous waste produced in the process.
Legislations like the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform in the United States are taking a step towards more transparency from manufacturers, requiring them to disclose where the minerals used in the production of their handsets come from – so consumers can make an informed decision. However, this doesn’t remove the original problem. This is where the Fairphone comes in: it’s the first attempt to create a smartphone that is ethically sourced and manufactured.
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The Fairphone social enterprise company was founded in January 2013, after a two-and-a-half-year campaign. Its aim is to “build a movement for fairer electronics” and “put ethical values first.” By putting pressure on the supply chain and closely monitoring where their components come from, as well as assuring fair wages for the workers involved in manufacturing the handsets, they hope to be able to create totally fair and ethical phone – an impossibly difficult task, but one they’re trying to complete nonetheless.
The first Fairphone was released in November 2013, after raising money through 5,000 pre-orders, which was enough to produce the very first batch of handsets. Following this, another batch of 35,000 phones was released and sold in 2014, before being discontinued in February 2015. Production then began on the Fairphone 2, a more modular, updated version of the handset.
So far, only three out of the four conflict minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold) contained in the Fairphone 2 are, in fact, fair. The company sources ethical tin and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and have been using Fairtrade gold since January 2016 (establishing the first Fairtrade-certified gold supply chain in the world), but is still working on finding a way to source conflict-free tungsten.
The outside casing is made from aluminium and recycled plastic, with a 5-inch Gorilla Glass screen, and designed to be easily repairable – minimising waste and extending its lifespan in the process. (It’s the first phone to ever get a 10/10 score from iFixit!) It’s also one of the only modular phones on the market at the moment, and components like the screen, inside hardware, or battery can easily be replaced by the owner. Fairphone sell a number of spare parts in their online shops, and have partnered with iFixit to provide repair guides for the handset.
The downside: because of its modular properties, the Fairphone 2 looks and feels much bulkier than the high-end flagship smartphones you may be used to – screws take up more space than glue, after all.
The Verge gave the Fairphone 2 a score of 7.5/10 in their review; its performance is still very mid-range, despite a €525 price tag (about £410). The handset comes with Android 5.1 Lollipop, combined with the open-source Fairphone OS to add shortcuts and small alterations, like “privacy analysis” of your apps. It’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset and 2.26 GHz Quad-Core processor, contains 32GB of memory with 2GB RAM, and a 2420 mAh battery. The main camera is 8MP.
As a smartphone, it is still lagging behind in terms of specs and performance. However, the company still deserves lots and lots of praise for its ethical values, and the way it is trying to change the mobile industry for the better. The Fairphone 2 isn’t a completely ethical phone – but it’s aware of it, and it’s doing the best it can to get other manufacturers and retailer to change the way smartphones are made.