How Fairphone is creating a smart phone for the circular economy
When it comes to preventing the growth of the waste electricals stream, the gold standard has got to be designing for disassembly. With increased focus on the circular economy, the idea is often talked about but, it seems, rarely practiced. Dutch company Fairphone, though, is taking action on this front as part of its social, environmental and ethical aims.
Fairphone got its start in 2010 as a campaign to raise awareness of the conflict minerals found in so many consumer electronics, which are fuelling wars in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was then established as a social enterprise in 2013, and went on to create its own smartphone to help it ‘tell a much bigger story’. A spokesperson explains: “For us, a smartphone is a means to an end. It is a tool to build a movement for fairer electronics and to inspire the entire industry to address social and environmental issues across the supply chain.”
The first version of the Fairphone was launched in 2013 and featured conflict-free tin and tantalum, a recycled polycarbonate body, an open-source operating system and replaceable battery, a dual SIM system allowing users to merge work and personal phones (for instance) and a promise that manufacturers throughout the supply chain were paid a living wage. The phone retailed at €325, with the company selling out of the 60,000 handsets manufactured.
This gave it the financial base to develop the second iteration, Fairphone 2, the first modular smartphone on the market, which is now available for (an admittedly hefty) €530. The design this time is completely original, which allowed the company to gain greater (though by no means complete) oversight of the supply chain and, significantly, improve product longevity. The spokesperson explains: “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.”
The spare modules available on the website include the core (where most of the connectivity activity occurs), and camera and display units, as well as the battery, and the company has partnered with iFixit to create open- source repair guides, allowing anyone who’s got a screwdriver to perform basic maintenance. The company is aiming to buck the trend of ever-more integrated smartphones, which make models thinner but harder to repair (and, indeed, recycle). Fairphone says that (in part by incorporating a protective case), it has been able to keep its thickness in line with other smartphones.
The design will go a long way towards reducing the waste created by the company’s customers, though, given their limited numbers, this is unlikely to have a big impact on the market as a whole just yet. And market penetration is far from the only hurdle left to clear, with the spokesperson explaining: “The main challenge is the complexity and the global character of electronics supply chain. To produce just one smartphone, more than 40 minerals are needed and hundreds of suppliers such as smelters, refineries and component manufacturers all over the world are involved.
“There are literally thousands of social and ecological standards that can be improved in the production of smartphones, and we have defined interventions to gradually address some of them. But they can’t be overcome all at once, and some things are simply impossible to achieve right now.” We wish the company luck in its journey towards a truly fair (and eco- friendly) phone.