Sustainability

Fairphone breakthrough in smartphone technology extends phone lifespans

Ethical smartphone company Fairphone has announced the first upgradeable smartphone modules today (31 August) in a bid to combat waste associated with smartphone use and production.

Fairphone breakthrough in smartphone technology extends phone lifespans
The company hopes that by allowing users to upgrade their phones bit by bit it will save customers money, reduce waste and challenge the hegemonic business models of tech giants like Apple and Samsung.

Smartphones are a key source of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE), a significant waste stream which sees over 1.5 million tonnes of new electronic products placed on the UK market each year, only about 500,000 tonnes of which are recycled, in part due to the complex recycling process. 

From September, Dutch company Fairphone’s 70,000 customers will be able to purchase upgraded camera modules and slot them into their phones, keeping them up-to-date, extending their life, and precluding the need to replace the entire phone, thus reducing waste. The cost of the camera modules are £41 for the rear (main) and £27 for the front (selfie), with both available together for a bundle price of £64.

Cameras have now become one of the core features of smartphones and, while they rarely break, they are quickly usurped by technological advances rendering them outdated and unattractive in a consumer society.

Modularity, separating a system or product into its individual components, has long been applied to computers and cars, but it had been argued that it would be unsuitable for phones, making them too expensive, large and fragile to be commercially viable.

Fairphone modules can be purchased separately and easily added to the phone
Commenting on the release, European Environmental Bureau waste policy expert Stephane Arditi said: “Well done Fairphone for pioneering modular upgrades and getting us a step closer to phones that last a lifetime. The big question now is whether the firm’s modularity will take a bite out of the rotten mainstream business models, or whether Apple, Samsung and others will join the revolution.

“We are not saying modularity is the cure for the problems of e-waste, conflict minerals and child labour. But done right, it should extend phone use, lower demand and deliver real pain relief.”

Making obsolescence obsolete

Sustainability does come at a price, but not as high as you might think. Fairphone’s latest phone, the Fairphone 2, which runs on the Android operating system. offers a longer lifespan and the opportunity to update through the purchase of additional modules for a price of £486 – a snip compared to an iPhone 7, currently available for between £599 and £919 on the Apple website.

Furthermore, 6.3 per cent of the cost of a Fairphone goes back into developing high-performance phones and projects that stimulate social innovation.

Fairphone’s model aims to directly address the short-termist culture at tech companies, where they have been accused of deliberately keeping phone lifespans short in order to maximise profits and sales. The average phone lifespan is just 18 months with the use of irreversible glues and other obstacles making it harder to repair such phones.

Last year, the company told Resource: “The idea behind the Fairphone 2 is to empower users to take ownership of their product/phones and offer easy options for maintenance. Obviously, how long it lasts depends quite heavily on the user, so what we as a company are doing is offering an ecosystem around the phone that supports long-lasting use, first-hand or second-hand. Some of the things we are doing to this end [include] offering spare parts on sale from our webshop and timely and continuous software security updates.”

In the face of such planned obsolescence, the European Commission is considering new laws to improve product design, making it easier to extend the lifespan of an electronic or electrical product through repair or upgradeability, and has opened a probe into planned obsolescence itself.

Fairphone breakthrough in smartphone technology extends phone lifespans
Apple's Liam robot can disassemble iPhone 6s and recover component parts
More and more attention is being afforded to the topic of WEEE, with producers and retailers of electronic equipment announcing at the start of the month (1 August) that a new fund of £665,000 would be available to support community projects run by local authorities to promote and increase the re-use and recycling of WEEE.

Apple itself has also seemingly realised the unsustainable nature of its business model and in April announced that it plans to work towards using 100 per cent recycled materials in its products to create a closed loop supply chain and end its reliance on mining.

The tech giant has unveiled two ‘Liam’ robots, which can disassemble iPhone 6 models and recover certain components for reuse, but those two lines, in California and Amsterdam, are capable of processing 1.2 million phones a year, while Apple sold over 41 million iPhones in the third quarter of 2017 alone, so there is still plenty of work to be done.

You can find out more information about Fairphone on the company’s website, or in Resource’s feature on the innovation.

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