Last updated: October 2016
Dutch company, Fairphone started as a awareness campaign about conflict minerals in 2010. Three years later, in January 2013, it set up as a social enterprise, and pre-sold 10,000 smartphones through crowd-funding. Now there are over 100,000 Fairphone owners.
The idea was not just to create awareness about the problems associated with mobile phones, but to understand their production, and work out how to provide a positive alternative. Their mission is to create a positive social and environmental impact from the beginning to the end of a phone’s life cycle via long lasting design, fair materials, good working conditions, reuse and recycling.
Transparency is a core Fairphone principle. Fairphone provides a detailed cost breakdown of what you are supporting when you buy its phone. Their goal is to track each and every component they use to make the Fairphone – from start to finish. A map of their supply chain is on their website.
The relatively small size of the company means it has higher manufacturing costs, but purchases also support the investment costs of developing the modular design (which means the phone is easier to repair), and support its Worker Welfare Fund, social assessments, and projects that help source conflict-free minerals.
Fairphone is just one customer of the Chinese factory, Hi-P, that makes its phones. Fairphone are open and honest about the challenges in the industry, aiming to gradually improve working conditions, employee engagement and representation. It is open about the fact that a 100% fair phone is not really achievable.
In its supply chain, Fairphone finally managed to integrate conflict-free tungsten in June 2016, achieving traceability for all four internationally recognised ‘conflict minerals’ – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The gold in ‘Fairphone 2’ is certified Fairtrade.
It is currently working on the sourcing of the cobalt in its batteries, including research on using recycled material instead of virgin mined material. For the Fairphone 2, it is working with two battery suppliers neither of which are mentioned in the Amnesty report. Fairphone have openly said: “it is not unlikely that in some way or another the supply chain of the Fairphone 2 is connected to mines with conditions as described by Amnesty International.”
In the UK, Fairphone 2 is exclusively available through the Phone Co-op. You can buy it outright for £440, or through a contract from £25 a month. There is also an affiliate scheme whereby 6% of your monthly spend will be donated to Ethical Consumer if you go to www.thephonecoop/ethicalconsumer or call 01608 434000 and quote ‘Ethical Consumer’.
Visit the Fairphone website for loads more information about Fairphone’s goals and how they work.
Tim Hunt spoke to Tessa Wernink, a director of Fairphone, at their launch event in September 2013 in Soho, London.
Why did you choose to build a phone rather than campaign in the traditional way?
You can campaign and create awareness but phones aren’t going to go away. If people don’t have an alternative then campaigning doesn’t really make sense.
But also because to actually change the system you need to understand it and with a mobile you need to understand all the complexities of production. So Fairphone is a way to open up that system and show that you can use transparency and social goals in your decision making.
Can you tell us about finding conflict-free minerals?
Being active as a campaign group for three years and building relationships over that period has really helped. In that time we started working with NGOs like Action Aid and Somo and we built up many contacts.
For example we use conflict-free tin and tantalum in our phones and we have a relationship with Fairtrade, Max Havelaar and others.
We are working with other NGOs on sourcing cobalt, and have set up working groups to look at other elements.
However that is not to say that all the gold, tin and cobalt in the phone is ethical. We’ve become part of an existing supply chain rather than setting up a totally new one. We are trying to make interventions where we can with component manufacturers but it’s a challenge as we need to know about second tier suppliers. There are issues with suppliers maintaining secrecy for a competitive advantage but part of what we want is transparency: to know which materials go into what and to be able to trace them. It’s a long journey.
Was it difficult to find a factory to use?
It was quite a journey. At the time we were going to produce 20,000 phones and we didn’t have any funds. And we had all these requirements on transparency and social values. So we needed to find a company that was willing to listen and most didn’t have the time to talk to us!
But local experts selected a number of factories based on our criteria. For instance we wanted to look at a factory which didn’t use a large number of migrant workers. It’s also a state-owned company, so its motives are different from a purely commercial enterprise.
We also looked at using a factory in Europe. But we felt it was as important to stay in China, as it was to use minerals from the Congo. You can move out of areas where there are problems but that will create new problems and we want to shed a light on the supply chain in those areas and work to improve them.
What sort of auditing have you done?
We’ve done a social assessment and made it clear to the manufacturer we want to work with them on a long term project.
We’ve been crunching the data from this and will be publishing all the data in full on our website. This will be the first time that a phone manufacturer will have done this.
There are likely to be issues that need improvement and if we find problematic issues we want to work together to change them.
We are setting up a working group to look at workers’ rights. $2.50 from every phone goes into the workers’ welfare fund and is matched by the factory and we’ll use this to ensure people earn a living wage. The rest will be used to create a dialogue between workers and managers. We’ve been talking to unions and NGOs to help achieve this.
We’ll also make sure we aren’t doing what the big brands do, growing quickly, forcing fast production times and reducing the manufacturer’s margins.
What have been the biggest challenges?
There are four main ones I’d say:
- Working in volatile regions and with initiatives that are in war zones, such as the Congo, is obviously difficult. You need to monitor the situation and make sure your people are safe.
- To work on a global level is difficult, where you have cultural differences and language barriers.
- Also we’re all about transparency and so when you communicate mistakes and difficulties you lose people along the way, which is tough.
- And remaining true to values with commercial pressures is also difficult.
What’s been the most positive aspect of the project so far?
People are hungry for change. There is so much goodwill and people who want to help out.
People we have met from corporations are also working for change from the inside. There is so much greenwash around that there is also a lot of healthy scepticism and that’s good because it helps people to really engage with what we are doing.
The speed at which the word has spread has also been a surprise. It was a dormant thing and it’s been amazing to wake it. It’s not just us, we’ve just formulated something that people were thinking already and given it a means to take action. I’m also surprised by people calling us and the amount they are willing to do.
Do you think you’ll ever make a 100% fair phone?
It’s good to realise that ‘fair’ is a human concept and not a static thing. It changes depending on what angle you are viewing it from. Fairphone is a discussion and we want people to constantly have that discussion about how our actions influence other people. Fairphone will be a platform where people can talk about what constitutes fairness in the mobile market but we’ll never achieve the 100% fair phone – that’s not really the point.