Learning about how your smartphone is produced doesn’t make for comfortable reading. As well as the Dickensian conditions in many of the factories where the handset is assembled, there are hundreds of components, all with their own complex, and often sketchy, backgrounds.
We’ve all heard about factories in China where staff stand for 12 hours a day performing the same repetitive tasks six days a week. We’ve read that employees are frequently underpaid and that many of them are children. We might even sort of know that elements such as gold, tungsten, tin and tantalum, which go into mobile phones, come from mines in countries where the people are blackmailed, the conditions are dangerous and the money goes towards war.
But we all kind of turn a blind eye, because we don’t know what we can do to help, or what the alternative is. In the West, there’s almost a depressing inevitability that we use unethical products with little control over where they come from. Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing I can do about it without sacrificing life as a normal twentysomething in 2015. I don’t doubt it’s the same for most of the 93% of the UK who own a mobile phone. So it was a happy surprise to learn ethically-produced Fairphone not only exists, but is actually good tech.
The Fairphone 2 is made in a factory in China with good working conditions and fair pay. It’s made with many (but not all) conflict-free minerals and it’s designed and built to last.
The makers shy away from actually calling the Fairphone “ethical”, because there is still a lot of work to do, but it is Ethical Consumer’s number one phone with an ethics score of 15 out of 20. As the only one in the rankings with a score more than 10, it’s head and shoulders above everything currently on the market.
If that wasn’t convincing enough, last week at COP21 in Paris, Fairphone was awarded the UN Momentum for Change Award for its work.
Tip of the iceberg
We met up with Bibi Bleekemolen, who’s in charge of research and outreach at Netherlands-based Fairphone, in London. She explains that the Fairphone 1, the first phone the company produced, sold 60,000 units. The Fairphone 2, which is currently on sale, has so far sold 22,000 – though there is a month-long waiting list.
The social enterprise started in 2010 as a campaign group for raising awareness of conflict minerals – the founders never intended to actually make a phone. But after two years, they formed a company after realising they could set an example to the industry. Even before they began manufacturing the first Fairphone, it was apparent there was a huge demand for the product.
“We sold 10,000 handsets in three weeks of a phone that didn’t yet exist, from a company that had existed only a month, with no track record,” Bibi says.
So the whole time you’ve been reading this, you’ve been imagining a giant 1980s-style phone, possibly made of some kind of hemp, haven’t you?
Well you might be pleased to know it’s a hippie-free zone. In fact, the Fairphone 2 is competitive, with a 5-inch full HD Gorilla Glass LCD display, and running Android 5.1 (Lollipop). It has 32GB of internal storage, a front and rear facing camera, and 4G. It’s largely what you’d expect from a €529.38 (£383.56) mid-range handset. If you’re a techie, there are few things “missing” – such as a fingerprint scanner, perhaps, or a curved glass screen. But the device’s other innovations are where the excitement really starts.
Pivotal to the design of the Fairphone 2 is the modular architecture which does amazing things for improving the lifecycle of the handset. Opening it up – simply a case of popping a couple of clips – each part of the device, the USB ports, microphone, camera, speaker, battery are all confined to their own little segments.
Each component is easily replaceable, which is beyond convenient in an era where it’s almost impossible to get to the end of a contract with a phone in perfect working order.
Not only is there zero planned obsolescence, but the hardware is able to be customised and upgraded.
Right now the phone has an 8 megapixel camera, but next year Fairphone, or indeed a third party, might have produced a 10, 12 or 15 megapixel snapper to fit in the space.
Explaining how it works, Bibi points out a small metal connector that touches nothing but the plastic on the inside of the case when the phone is fully assembled.
“You can see it doesn’t have a matching connector because this is still a very basic protective case, but there are third parties working on making a case with solar panels on it,” she says.
Yep, it’s so futureproof, it has connectors for components that haven’t even been developed yet.
For me, this is the most exciting part. Honestly, I care about the miners. I do. But for those like me who love to get the most out of their device, it’s the ultimate jailbreak.
Main image via Flickr © Fairphone