When Bas van Abel founded Fairphone, a company which aims to develop smartphones with a minimal environmental impact, in 2013, he didn’t own a mobile phone. “I’m pretty vulnerable for addiction!” the 43-year-old Dutchman told me when we spoke over video call. “I’m a workaholic. One of the reasons I didn’t have a phone was to prevent myself from being connected all the time.”
It wasn’t until Van Abel made his own phone that he started using one. But Fairphone, which was in 2015 named Europe’s fastest-growing start-up, was not conceived simply as another product. Rather, Van Abel and his team started the project to tell a pressing story about the side-effects of consumption under late capitalism. “The question at the time was how to get the story of conflict minerals all the way through to the consumer. It was more set up as a campaign to raise awareness about the problem,” he said.
Minerals including gold, silver, cobalt and tungsten are found in smartphones and computers – including the device on which you are reading this article, and in the new iPhone 12, which is released this week. Many of these are “conflict minerals”: mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, and sold by armed groups. But once we hold a shiny new phone in our hands, many thousands of miles away from the countries where the mining takes place, these brutal origins are often forgotten.
Van Abel chose to tell this story through the smartphone because the object is, he said, “the biggest paradox we have”. “We’re super-connected to our phone, it’s super-important to us, but we know nothing about it because it’s so complex. It’s kind of a black box.”
Fairphone, which recently released an upgraded model of its third iteration, the Fairphone 3+, has an open dialogue with its customers about the origin of its materials. It is committed, over time, to paying a living wage and upholding high labour conditions for the workers at every stage of a phone’s complex supply chain. This is very different from the approach of the world’s major smartphone manufacturers. Half of all iPhones are produced in one factory complex in Henan, one of China’s poorest provinces. It is run by the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which has faced accusations of poor working conditions, labour abuses and harsh punishments for employees who make mistakes. Similar accusations have been levelled at factories making products for Huawei and Samsung.
Fairphone also has an environmental aim: to minimise electronic waste, one of the world’s fastest growing waste streams. Figures show that although the life cycle of a smartphone (the length of time someone has their phone for) has been steadily increasing, users in the UK kept their phones for an average of only 27.7 months in 2018. Contract culture, in which providers push new models onto customers, often after only two years, encourages consumers to desire the latest design even if their current handset is still perfectly functional. Once a customer buys a new phone, their old one is deemed redundant.
Fairphone asks its customers to adopt a different mindset where longevity is key. It hopes its users will keep one of its phones for at least five years. And, if a component does break, it offers new parts, sold individually on its website. A new Fairphone comes with a screwdriver and, thanks to the handset’s modular design, a defective part – a camera, battery, screen or speaker – can be replaced by the user themselves. It doesn’t seem like a particularly novel idea, but when you consider that an iPhone requires you to find a pin and prod it into the phone’s side simply take out the SIM card – and that few would dare change an iPhone’s battery without expert guidance – and you realise this physical accessibility is rare.
The idea of a modular smartphone is not new. In 2013, when Fairphone was launched, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens created Phonebloks, an open-source modular smartphone concept which, like Fairphone, had the goal of minimising electronic waste. The idea was to have a main board onto which the user could choose modules to attach according to their preference. “For me, the project was always more like a vision, something to work towards in 20 years,” Hakkens told me over email. “It was never really my ambition or intention to make this phone.”
Around the same time, Google was working on a similar initiative: Project Ara. It, too, never came to market. “At some point the company decided to focus more on software instead of hardware, so they skipped a lot of projects,” Hakkens said. “Back then it was really Google that pushed it first, but they just killed it.”
Hakkens thinks the ambition for Phonebloks “was a bit bigger” than Fairphone’s: “With Phonebloks, you could really update anything – your processor, the Bluetooth, the wi-fi, the entire core of your phone. With Fairphone you’re dependent on the modules themselves.” But he admires the slow and steady approach that has made the Fairphone a reality.
For all its ethical advantages, Fairphone has encountered lots of challenges in attempting to live up to its name. Van Abel admits it is a “fairer” phone rather than flat-out “fair”, though over time, he hopes it will more than earn its title. The phone’s biodegradable materials, its recycled plastics and the fact that it emits less carbon dioxide (on the basis that it is used for longer than the average phone) are “all lifecycle assessments you can measure”, he said. But with regards to working conditions, “it gets a bit messy. We’re dealing with a system that is basically a world in your pocket.”
He referenced the minerals the company mines in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed groups have used the trade of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold to fund a war for the past two decades. Fairphone doesn’t want to avoid the area – previously, when companies were pressured to leave the region, the economy suffered and even more conflict arose. “Would the phone be fairer than if we were in the Congo and addressing child labour by contributing to improving the situation?” asked Van Abel, acknowledging that to mine in the Congo is to agree to having child labour in your supply chain. “I can tell you for sure that your Fairphone is made in mines where there is still child labour. That is weird when you buy a Fairphone. We have programmes to gradually solve the problem of child labour. But it takes around five to ten years to do that.”
Fairphone’s commitment to sustainability demands an incremental approach. It works with local mining communities to phase out conflict minerals in its phones one by one. Being “sustainable” is, after all, about finding long-term solutions rather than solving the world’s problems overnight.
Fairphone’s insistence on sustainability inevitably affects the quality of the phone, most obviously on an aesthetic level. The Fairphone 3 is chunkier than the average iPhone or Samsung model because its modular design requires its components to be accessible, rather than packed away in as tight a case as possible. Van Abel described the company’s method as designing “from the inside out”. Other brands are more likely to develop the size and shape specifications of a box and then task their engineers with fitting all the necessary components inside; batteries and so forth will be glued in to make the handset suitably compact. Working out the balance between sustainability and practical appeal has been difficult, Van Abel said, but he believes Fairphone has got to the point where “on a spec level, we can compete” with other phones on the market. Besides, the average consumer’s preference for a “slim” phone is purely cosmetic: “I think a lot of people buy an iPhone and think, ‘wow!’, and then they put a case around it and it’s thick and bulky anyway.”
Another compromise comes in Fairphone’s use of Android. The operating system is commercially sponsored by Google, a company which many would not describe as “fair” on account of issues including tax avoidance and the alleged manipulation of search results.
“What we want to offer is a phone that people can buy and use,” said Van Abel. The company does offer a fully open-source version of the phone, which about 5 per cent of Fairphone customers opt for. “But the first thing people say is: ‘Where is my Play Store? Where can I download my apps?’”
He added, “if you want to change the system from within, you have to learn that sometimes you’re going to be dictated by that system. We’re not an NGO standing on the side-lines, telling everyone what’s good or not good. But it’s also a strength: if we work with Google, we’re at the table with Google.”
Ultimately, there is a quandary in Fairphone’s plan: if the company is so keen to reduce electronic waste and minimise the consumerist ideals of the average smartphone user, why make and sell a new product at all?
Van Abel toyed with this question, and seemed to view it as a philosophical query. “It’s a fact in life that by creating, we’re also destroying. Just by being here as human beings, we have that dilemma around us,” he said. “I can say the best way to lower my footprint would be to kill myself, right? But I don’t think that’s the idea of being more sustainable.” Fairphone is, then, not a simple solution to a vastly complex problem, but a manner by which the technology industry is being questioned, and analysed from all sides.
This does, however, leave Fairphone’s sales team with a difficult task. Once a customer buys a handset, the company hopes they will keep it for at least five years. Pushing its customers to buy new models as other brands do would be to run against its own ethos.
In Fairphone’s lifetime, it has sold over 250,000 phones, of which approximately 60,000 are Fairphone 1s, 100,000 are Fairphone 2s, and 100,000 are the Fairphone 3. Van Abel told me the company is “approximately breaking even at the moment, so should be generating money in the near future”. These numbers make Fairphone a tiny player in the global market. But as more people are willing to make substantial changes in order to lead a more ethical, environmentally conscious life, Fairphone’s time may be coming.
And Phonebloks’ Hakkens noted a change in tack in smartphone innovation. “The development of phones is slowly running out,” he said. “You notice now that the smartphone is at the end of its evolution. It’s just small tweaks that are optimised each time.” This means modular phones could become more desirable, he said, “but I think that requires a complete shift in all the companies’ business models”.
The changing nature of the industry, and the difficulties Fairphone has faced in attempting to produce a “fair” phone excites Van Abel. “Creating dilemmas, real, human, ethical dilemmas, within the core of your company’s thinking: that’s really what it’s about. Sustainability and business have to go hand in hand. I like to focus on the areas where they bite each other, and it’s exactly here. Sustainability is a dirty business, in that sense.”