From the sources of the minerals used to make phone components, to the conditions in the factories that produce them, there are several ethical concerns of varying gravity along the production line.
Most notoriously, Foxconn, the Taiwanese multinational contractor that makes iPhones in China, has been accused of causing conditions so bad that workers were driven to suicide.
All in all, it’s enough to make you reconsider buying a brand new smartphone- or at least, to think about the alternatives. And that’s without even considering the way most consumers think of their phones as disposable, rather than a commodity to be repaired, reused or recycled responsibly.
One company in The Netherlands is pioneering the movement towards treating smartphones and their production with more consideration of ethical impact. Established in 2010, Fairphone is a social enterprise that began as an awareness campaign and quickly grew and in 2013, the company has taken the next step and actually produced a phone that meets all its key criteria.
With the support of thousands of private investors, the first Fairphone (running an Android OS) will be received by microfinance purchaser-investors across Europe in the next few weeks.
The Fairphone captures five key principles that the organisation believes are at the heart of designing, manufacturing and looking after phones in a more sustainable and equitable manner.
The materials are conflict free, the pricing and production is transparent, manufacturing workers are given fair pay and conditions for the specialised work that they do, and importantly the entire lifespan of the phone is addressed with design features that improve its longevity plus several options for recycling.
And as for aesthetics? It’s a great looking phone, with all the style you’d expect from a conventional phone including a big high res touch screen and an 8MP camera.
Unfortunately, the Fairphone is currently only available in Europe, at a cost of €325 ($450). But if launched in Australia at approximately the same price point, it would still be less than half of the price of the latest iPhone and approximately 40% less than the bestselling Android phone, the Galaxy S3/S4.
Plus it’s made to be highly functional, yet not subject to apparently arbitrary fashions such as screen length (?) and speaker placement, which would appear to contribute to the frequency of updates by the big manufacturers. If you could get an awesome phone that would last ages AND feel like a superhero for saving the planet and helping out vulnerable workers, wouldn’t you choose a fairer way?
Hopefully the Fairphone will become available in Australia soon. In the meantime, conscious consumers should keep an eye out for information on the practices of the companies manufacturing their smartphones, and support moves by major carriers (Vodafone was an early investor) to boost the Fairphone cause. Or alternatively, contact a relative or a mate in Europe…