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Fairphone Interview

We interviewed Fabian Hühne from Fairphone – a social enterprise that proved that ethical products are profitable

Can you tell us about Fairphone in a couple of sentences, please?

Fairphone is a social enterprise that produces smartphones in order to inspire change in the electronics industry. We started as a campaign in 2010 and with the help of our first phone in 2013, we have defined four areas in which we want to create change: mining, manufacturing, design and life cycle. 

Fairphone is becoming fairer, but it is not yet a fully ‘fair’ phone. There are huge challenges for the entire electronics industry to address in supply chains. Our role is to inspire change by being innovative in our own supply chain and by bringing the customer closer to the production process and create demand for more ethical products.

How have issues of modern slavery been integrated into your business model?

There are risks of child labour and different forms of forced labour at different stages of the electronics supply chain. This could be from mining up to manufacturing. Due to lack of transparency, it has been impossible for consumers to know if modern slavery is present in the production of their electronics products. 

Fairphone originated as a campaign to raise awareness about the use of forced and child labour for the mining in conflict areas such as DRC Congo. We aim to make the supply chain more transparent by finding constructive solutions to inspire positive change in the industry.

What problems have you encountered in terms of addressing modern slavery on your supply chain and how have you addressed them?

There are problems at different stages of the supply chain that we have identified. Forced labour and child labour is utilized in mining of minerals used for electronic products. Furthermore, there are issues with identity cards being withheld, wages being withheld, people unable to leave their job, forced overtime without payment, and to a lesser extent  child labour. It differs per country as to which issues are more prevalent.

In addressing this, we are working to improve our own supply chain systematically. We set up supply chains of fair materials, such as conflict free tin, tungsten, tantalum. In addition, we have integrated, as the first electronics manufacturer, Fairtrade gold into our supply chain. We work with local partners, including refiners, miners, governments and NGOs to improve working conditions and increase livelihood.

Image: Fairphone factory Fairtrade

In manufacturing, we collaborate with our partners to improve worker satisfaction as well as worker representation. One of the ways we do this is to allow workers to voice their concerns and suggestions for improvement.

Here challenges include the lack of transparency. It is not always clear where materials come from and how they were mined and processed. As a small company, we do not always have the commercial leverage on our supply chain, especially deeper in the supply chain where risks are bigger. Hence, we need to foster partnerships to address these issues.

Being a campaigning organisation do you feel a greater responsibility than larger companies? How have you responded to this?

I think that the responsibility is for everyone. Brands needs to convince consumers, as well as manufacturers, that sustainability and better supply chains are systemic issues that can only be fixed on a systemic level. We simply cannot do it alone. We need to change our consumption patterns just as much as we need to produce differently.

Fairphone has been a leader in your field on other issues - are you planning on releasing a modern slavery report so that you can also become an exemplar on this issue? - If yes explain more if no why not.

Image: Fairphone fairtrade mobile

Transparency is a key value for Fairphone. We already publish our full supply chain and this entails how we work with our manufacturing partners to improve working conditions. Although we have not summarised it under the term modern slavery, you can find all this information on our website. We will continue to provide transparency on the root causes of labour issues as well as our approach to find solutions in this form.

How much impact do you think a company of your size realistically have on this issue?

We are still a small player, but the most important message that we send right now is that there are more people caring about this. We have shown that there is a market for more sustainable products. This sends an important message.

Have you found larger companies copying any of your actions your lead on ethical issues such as modern slavery?

We do see a lot of interest and you have to imagine that the industry not only consists of manufacturers - there are hundreds of suppliers, smelters, mines and many more that also form a part of a supply chain. Here we see a lot of interest and we have achieved a lot together with them already.

After our Fairtrade gold project for instance there was a lot of interest of other companies how we did this. Now, we are part of a gold covenant with the Dutch government, electronic and jewellery industry as well as NGOs to improve the gold sector.

Are you finding it difficult in maintaining high ethical standards as demand for the Fairphone increases?

In fact, the opposite is the case - the more we grow the more influence we have. Not just through the publicity we can create but especially with other players. The main customers have high demands on working conditions and other standards.

Fabian's colleague, Monique Lempers, Value Chain and Commercial Director, will discuss modern slavery  further at the Second Global Modern Slavery & Supply Chain Summit (14 November, London) alongside senior Supply Chain and Ethical Trade practitioners from Twinings, Nokia, JLL, Co-op, Travis Perkins, Sainsbury’s, EDF, GLAA and more.

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