'This is just the start': Inside Fairphone, the average Android mobile trying to change the world

A young Dutch startup set out with the idea that they could make a more sustainable mobile, and that consumers would be willing to pay for it. How far can it go?
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
The first generation Fairphone
The first generation Fairphone. Image: Fairphone

To you, it might look like a bog-standard, mid-range Android. And it's true, on the outside, that's exactly what it is. But the Fairphone — quad-core chip, eight megapixel camera, Jelly Bean and all — has a more interesting story to tell.

Fairphone, the Dutch firm behind the eponymous device, wasn't a product of Europe's startup fever though. While it has the requisite small international workforce seeking crowdfunded cash, it started life a few years back as part of advocacy group that wanted the Netherlands' consumers and operators to take a closer look at where the materials in their mobile devices came from.

In 2010, Fairphone was just a project at the Dutch art, design and tech institute Waag Society, conceived with the aim of raising awareness about the issue of conflict minerals.

As time went on, the project's remit crept a little, expanding to include looking at the sustainability of mobile phones in general — putting a spotlight on their lifecycle, from the very beginnings of the supply chain to how devices are sold, how they're used and what happens when they've outlived their usefulness.

As part of its campaign, the Fairphone project would hold "urban mining workshops" where participants — from consumers to mobile industry types — would take apart old mobile phones, and learn about the origins of the materials that go into them, the conditions that they're mined under, and what all that means for the country that supplies them.

"It was," said Miquel Ballester, Fairphone's head of product, "a way to make it more tangible."

The journey to handset maker

But if Fairphone wanted to really do anything about these issues, it had to make them more tangible still. Raising awareness is one thing, but raising money is always going to make a bigger impact.

"We had to change our mental chip from a non-profit to a social enterprise, because we realised if we wanted to make a more fair mobile phone, we had to be in the industry — we had to be part of the same system that develops phones. We couldn't make a fairer mobile phone by being an NGO," Ballester said.

Last year, Fairphone got that start in the industry it craved. It began its transformation from campaigner to mobile maker by applying to join Bethnal Green Ventures, a London-based accelerator that takes on tech startups with a social conscience. It was accepted into the accelerator last July, and launched as a fully-fledged four-person startup the following January, with the aim of making its first device later this year.

It's on track to do it, too: a crowdfunding appeal on its website recently hit the 5,000 pre-orders needs to turn the concept Fairphone device into a device it can sell, with a week of the appeal still on the clock.

Those 5,000 consumers will later this year get their hands on an Android OS device, built using a reference design developed by Fairphone's manufacturing partner, Chinese ODM A'hong. But for all Fairphone's familiar reference points, the startup is hoping to embed the concept of fairness in each element of the phone — its manufacturing, software, hardware and the industry ideals it supports.

What's different?

Its Jelly Bean OS may be as common as it gets, but it's been given a Fairphone twist, skinned with a pared back UI by London based Kwamecorp, which gives nods to sustainability by displaying information about the phone's power consumption on its lockscreen alongside controls to adjust the phone's features to cut its energy use. The Fairphone OS and the accompanying widgets are to be open sourced, and it's rootable to boot.  

The phone also aims to be fair for those that make it, which means there's a "living wage" guaranteed for those workers in the Chinese factory where the phone is assembled.

Even the A'hong reference design has been tweaked to make it more environmentally friendly than the standard models. "It looks very different. It had never been bare metal before, there had always been a layer of paint that we removed because it was much more sustainable not to use paint," Ballester said.

The issue of recycling is also one Fairphone is trying to tackle. For every phone sold, a €3 donation goes to Closing the Loop, a project that collects up end-of-life mobiles in developing economies and returns the scrap materials to the Netherlands for recycling.

And while fewer and fewer mobile makers' flagships handsets feature a removable battery, Fairphone has included one in order to extend the device's life and make it easier to refurbish.

The device is, according to Ballester, industry standard in terms of its recyclability, although the company is hoping to have the case made out of recycled plastic when it ships this autumn. But, again, the hard realities of the mobile industry and its manufacturing processes are throwing obstacles in Fairphone's path.

"It would be wonderful if we could use recycled plastic for the case. I can't promise it's going to happen, I'm trying, but it would be a big win," Ballester said. So what might stop that?

"There's a mix of a lot of things. There are relations that have been set for a long time. When they have a supplier for a long time, it's not so easy to change to another one. When you change to another one, there's a lot that needs to be changed as well. And the moulds [for the plastic casing] that are used can't be changed because that would cost too much money, but depending on materials you use, it would need some tweaks, and it would be a technical challenge."

Going conflict-free

But how much fairer is Fairphone really than other mobiles? Fairness for most mobile users comes back to the issue that spurred Fairphone's creation in the first place: that of conflict minerals.

Two of the metals that go into the device are conflict free: the tin in the Fairphone's soldering paste and the tantalum in its capacitors. "We don't want to just use conflict free minerals that come from Australia or other parts of the world, we want to support initiatives that try to source conflict free minerals from Congo itself," Ballester told ZDNet. "It's a very difficult challenge, but by doing that, you support clean economic trade in Congo. That's the first step to stabilisation – when things are stabilised, you can look at fair trade and more fair practices in terms of labour conditions for the miners."

Considering there are dozens of materials that go into a standard mobile, to have just two fair trade may not seem the pinnacle of fairness.

"We are not 100 percent conflict-free. We have never said that and we cannot say that, because we use 60 different suppliers and those suppliers have suppliers. That's the main issue for the mobile industry — that the supply chain has become so difficult," Ballester said.

And, assuming you even want to swap out an existing supplier for a fairer equivalent, it's not just a simple rip and replace.

"I realised that there's so many industry processes in each component of our mobile phone that any change becomes really difficult. Anything that would stop the manufacturing process — even if it's for one hour — to change the type of material, it's not a case of just changing one for the other, there's a whole process behind it, and it means engineers rethinking how to do it," Ballester said.

The next generation

But if the hard realities of the mobile industry might mean that only a fraction of Fairphone's materials are conflict-free and that's not as recyclable as the company and environmentally-minded consumers might want, it's optimistic the changes it can bring in for its second generation device — a Fairerphone, if you like.

The certification Fairphone wanted for its two key conflict-free materials could soon be on the way. The initiatives that Fairphone backs as part of its use of tin and tantalum — Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI) and the Solutions for Hope — should soon be able to certify their supply chains as conflict-free.

The company will look to add fair trade gold and cobalt to future devices, although admittedly both are years off hitting mainstream takeup it the electronics industry, according to Fairphone. In the case of gold, while certification exists, the fair trade version of the material isn't widely used — something Fairphone's hoping to tackle by working with the fair-trade association Max Havelaar. In the case of cobalt, used in smartphone batteries, Fairphone is partnering with Action Aid to look into the feasibility of setting up a fair-trade cobalt scheme in some of the countries where it's mined — a initiative that may take up to five years to come to fruition, even though the material can be obtained from non-conflict areas.

It will also go back to its suppliers elsewhere to find out where and how their minerals are mined, and how the companies' production processes and working conditions fit in with Fairphone's agenda.

Improving the Fairphone device's recyclability for example is one area that company wants to tackle in future phones. "We'd love to get to a point where we have a mobile phone that is easier to dismantle... not so much for recycling but because refurbishing and repairing is easier then. That's actually the first option before recycling because it's much more environmentally friendly," Ballester said.

"This is just the start. I don't see an end."

But in order to get to that point where it can make a second generation device, Fairphone needs to sell enough of its smartphones to make the effort worthwhile and catch the eye of mobile's big players. While being small-scale helps to keep supply chains under control, a certain degree of size is needed to make suppliers and buyers pay attention.

"We are now at a scale where we can make certain requirements and change certain things, but we could make very good use of a little bit more scale — then we would become an all-year-round interesting business for our suppliers, then we can change a lot of things," he said.

"And we have a long list of things we want to change."

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