Continuing with the mobile phone theme, and after the previous pages’ infographics on the raw materials found in mobile devices, it is pertinent to talk about the variety and complexity of these components and their supply chains. Sustainable and ethical business models alongside consumer behaviour change should be the Tech industry’s ambition.
The company behind Fairphone has taken this ideal and created a unique product. This Dutch start-up has been in operation in some form or another since 2010, and this new phone follows up on the first Fairphone, which had a production run of 60,000 devices. They describe their business as a ‘social enterprise that is building a movement for fairer electronics’.
Fairphone promotes supply chain transparency with all its major suppliers publicly listed on its website (Including AVX –who spoke at the MMTA’s 2015 Toronto Conference on conflict-free tantalum). In addition to raw material issues, the company also want to change the relationship the consumer has with their device. We seem to have reached a point where changing phone every year or two has become the norm, both due to the desire to have the latest model and the rapidly dwindling speed and battery life on older devices. Fairphone, in contrast, has made its mobile completely self-repairable (all you need is a Philips screwdriver) with replaceable components, and new batteries for sale. Fairphone says its phones are designed with a 5-year lifespan in mind.
Responsible E-waste Recycling
Fairphone has made various partnerships with organisations such as ‘Closing the Loop’ to help provide solutions for e-waste in countries without a formal electronics recycling sector. Starting with an e-waste awareness campaign in Ghana, the company collected 75,000 discarded phones there to ship to Belgium for safe recycling. Fairphone’s aim is to grow the world supply and demand of recycled materials, on one hand, by increasing recycling, and on the other, by encouraging suppliers to buy recycled materials. For example, the printed circuit board for Fairphone 2 is made from recycled copper. Although laudable, I wonder how unusual the use of recycled copper is? One of the inherent qualities of metal is its recyclability and value on the secondary market. The use of recycled metal is important but a better indicator of sustainability would be “how much of the metal is then recycled back in to a new phone at its end of life?”
The public are also encouraged to donate their old phones by sending it in to be safely recycled or reused, to ensure it stays out of the landfill. Broken phones are recycled, while usable phones get another life on the second-hand market. Again, there are many schemes that offer cash incentives for old phones, a better area to focus on would be changing consumer behaviour by encouraging the retrieval of very old phones that were chucked in the drawer for posterity years ago!
To align with the current push towards the Circular Economy, Fairphone is also exploring alternatives to the current linear economic model. This has been done by researching new business models for service and ownership, including ways to extend the life of the Fairphone, as well as reusing and recycling components and materials from phones that have reached their end-of-life.
The Fairphone costs €525 (around £395/US$570/AU$805), so not a low cost option. Unfortunately due to its small production runs Fairphone is yet to benefit from the economies of scale. It’s 5-year lifespan does, however, make up for the initial outlay. There will also be no penalties or software crashes for phones fixed by independent retailers! One great feature of the Fairphone 2 is the two SIM slots for home and abroad.
Fairphone has taken on the big phone makers with a phone that is an antidote for the opaqueness and waste in the supply chain of other available devices. Although not perfect, their efforts should be commended, especially the attention their message draws to the behaviour of others in the phone industry.
Tamara Alliot, MMTA