Smartphones Epitomise Wasteful Consumerism. But Is There Another Way?

They're the tangible expression of the breakneck pace of technological change - a pocket-sized device more powerful than the desktop computers of 20 years ago, helping to connect people in ways that were unimaginable even a couple of decades back.

For good or ill, smartphones are the symbol of our age.

They're the tangible expression of the breakneck pace of technological change - a pocket-sized device more powerful than the desktop computers of 20 years ago, helping to connect people in ways that were unimaginable even a couple of decades back.

But our obsession with these gadgets is adding to the already enormous strain we're placing on the Earth's resources. According to the UN Environment Programme (Unep), we're set to produce 50 million tonnes of 'e-waste' by 2017 and an ever-increasing proportion of this is coming from smartphones.

As an industry, the electronics sector is doing too little to halt the throwaway culture that got us here. In fact, it's fuelling it. Ever shorter product cycles and design practices that make it difficult and expensive to repair phones create a high-pressure environment where the temptation to chuck away and get the latest model is hard to resist.

The conflict connection

But waste is just one part of the equation.

Many of the key minerals in phones come from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country wracked by a bloody, brutal and near-continuous series of conflicts over the past half-century. And it's an inconvenient fact that many of the mines are controlled through fear by militias who use the spoils to fund their depredations.

Meanwhile in China, where the majority of smartphones are assembled, working conditions in factories can be extremely tough.

The supply chains that led to that shiny phone making its way to you form a complex web that spans the globe. It's rarely easy to identify exactly where every component comes from and whether a process led to someone suffering as a result. But often, it seems that the electronics industry is unwilling or incapable of addressing the issues head-on.

Fairphone - a different way

Fairphone was born in 2013 out of an impulse to do things differently. A social enterprise, its aim has been to show that it is possible to use a commercial strategy to maximise social impact at every stage of the value chain, from sourcing and production to distribution and recycling.

It sourced tin and tantalum from conflict-free mines in the DR Congo, started a worker-controlled welfare fund at its manufacturer in China, and commissioned an independent auditor to assess the factory conditions. It has made its list of suppliers public, produced a full cost breakdown of the phone and contributed to an e-waste collection scheme in Ghana.

This allowed it to produce its first smartphone - the Fairphone 1 - by the end of that same year, thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Two years on, 60,000 phones have been sold.

This legacy is being built upon with the launch of the Fairphone 2, with a target to get 100,000 users in the next year.

In order to exert even more influence across the supply chain, Fairphone has invested in a wholly original design. The Fairphone 1 was built on a licensed model, which made it difficult to trace the origins of some components and build direct relationships with their suppliers. By creating the new phone from scratch, this barrier to transparency has been removed, while also enabling Fairphone and its design partners, including the UK firm Seymourpowell, to take a radical new approach to designing the phone's hardware.

With a blank canvas to work on, the Fairphone 2 features a game-changing modular architecture allowing owners to easily open and repair their own phones. This will be supported by a whole ecosystem of parts to extend the longevity of the phone's hardware and software.

In marketing and selling the phone, Fairphone has forged partnerships based on shared values. In the UK, it has teamed up with The Phone Co-op, the only network owned by its customers.

The Phone Co-op supports community ventures by investing in other co-operatives and social enterprises, and buys from other co-operatives, ethical suppliers and local businesses wherever possible.

It's a Living Wage employer and a founding member of the Fair Tax campaign of firms that are proud to pay their fair share of corporation tax, while many of the big players in the mobile industry dodge their responsibilities.

In the words of the renowned environmentalist and sustainability activist Jonathon Porritt, who has held up our collaboration as an example: "It's changing the nature of the relationship between the people that provide the products and the services and the people that use those products and services".

We know that even collectively we're small in number. But we believe passionately that every person has the power to make small, incremental changes that in time can add up to a revolution. If we can show, together with our community, that there is a market and demand for ethical products, we can motivate the whole electronics industry to act more responsibly.


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