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Fairphone: Designing a fairer smartphone

Vasileios RIZOS's picture

Fairphone is a social enterprise that is building a movement for fairer electronics and opening up the supply chain by making a phone that puts social and environmental values first.

Aim

Fairphone originally started in 2010 as a campaign idea aiming to raise awareness about conflict minerals that are used for the production of consumer electronics. Three years later and following field research in Congo, the Fairphone founders concluded that in order to make a substantial impact they would need to be part of the process of producing consumer electronics. In this context, they decided to establish Fairphone as a social enterprise that would produce smartphones and would maximise the social impact in all stages of the value chain, from sourcing and production to design and recycling.

By showing where products come from, Fairphone aspires to create a market for ethical consumer electronics products and motivate the entire industry to act more responsibly. There are numerous social and environmental standards that need improvement in the electronics supply chain and it is not possible to change this overnight. Also it is not up to one company to change this. But Fairphone can provide a best practice example for this step-by-step journey.

Process

Responsible sourcing of minerals is the first priority of the company which focuses on using ‘’conflict-free’ minerals” (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) in the production of smartphones. Furthermore, Fairphone makes efforts to integrate environmental and social considerations (working conditions for miners i.e. local wages, child labour etc.) in its decisions about the source of minerals and aspires to further work on this area in the future. Working conditions and environmental performance are also two of the major factors that affect the decision of Fairphone when selecting partners in China for the manufacturing of smartphones.

In the design process, the company seeks to maximise the lifespan of smartphones. By designing a phone that is easy to repair and by offering support, spare parts and repair tutorials to its customers, the social enterprise aims to encourage them to replace their phones only when they have reached the end of their usable span. The second edition of the Fairphone smartphone features a one-of-a-kind modular architecture that offers owners the ability to open and repair their phones without any special technical skills. Fairphone also explores ways to improve design for longevity, reuse and material recovery. In this context, it has conducted a life-cycle assessment in order to better understand the environmental impacts of its product across the whole supply chain and identify eco-design tools that could be used to improve its sustainability performance.

 

The enterprise has also established a recycling programme to make it as easy as possible for its consumers to return their old devices for reuse or recycle. Finally, it provides funds to collect scrap phones in Ghana that would end up in landfills and bring them to Europe for recycling. Through this process as well as through e-waste awareness campaigns, Fairphone aspires to motivate the industry to gradually establish safe recycling facilities.

Barriers/challenges

Developing an "ethical’" smartphone containing minerals that originate from mines that are "conflict-free" and also involve low environmental impacts and good working conditions is a significant challenge for Fairphone. Each smartphone includes around 30 different minerals whose traceability across the whole supply chain is often difficult. Also, the legal framework in some countries of origin of smartphone components adds an additional layer of complexity to identifying the origin of minerals.

The financial barrier presents another important obstacle for Fairphone. The collection of sufficient financial resources for the development of the first edition of the smartphone was by no means an easy task since the development of a smartphone requires a significant initial investment. Such an investment is not easily available for start-ups such as Fairphone. Additionally, producing smartphones that will have as long life span as possible according to the company’s vision can pose financial challenges. For example, after selling out the first edition of Fairphone smartphone and while being in the development phase of the second edition, the company decided, despite demand,not to produce another batch of the first edition lacking the latest software and 4G technology. This decision was taken to avoid providing to its customers a device with features that would shorten its usable life span. This resulted in a gap of revenues from the phone sales which obliged the social enterprise to take a loan to support its operations.

Enablers

The company considers social awareness as the most important enabler to developing and implementing its business model. The social enterprise publicly reveals the steps of the process of preparing a Fairphone smartphone such as mining conditions, cost breakdown and list of suppliers and informs consumers about the complexity of this process. By being completely transparent about its operations and engaging consumers through discussions and workshops on all issues related to smartphone production, the enterprise aims to make them feel part of the process and develop a close relationship with them.

By raising awareness about its product and informing consumers about the process of producing consumer electronics, Fairphone managed to receive 10000 pre-orders for its first smartphone during a one-month crowdfunding campaign, which enabled the company to then produce the phone on a larger scale and eventually sell around 60000 devices.

Further details

How was the green solution financed?: 
Would you characterize the green solution as: 
High capital intensive investment (i.e. above €30,000)

Comments

stevelane's picture
Submitted by stevelane on

Most of the electronic manufacturing companies are also taking the support of recycling to recycle their waste or electronic products; we don't have any electronic products with a lifetime warranty, therefore after the expiration of electronic products, manufacturing companies are start recycling their products for further use. It comes out in a new shape and size with different features. but it is quite useful for the customers. Smartphones are also one of them and manufacturing companies are starting using recycling process of smartphones. http://tennisballcourts.com/