It's easy to forget that our device usage can have an impact on the environment from the moment the first rare earth metals are mined through to the point when the phone is (hopefully) broken down for recycling.
Increasingly, if belatedly, the smartphone industry is trying to take some of this impact into account -- and one of the companies offering one of the most interesting alternative models is Fairphone.
Fairphone aims to make attractive smartphones and also tackle other issues: offering fair wages for factory workers, decreasing e-waste, encouraging long-lasting phone usage, encouraging the use of ethically sourced materials, and enforcing the right of individuals to repair their own electronic devices.
Miquel Ballester, head of product management and co-founder of Fairphone, says the goal of the company is "to change the industry from within" by finding projects and initiatives that in turn encourage others in the industry to try something similar.
In 2021, Fairphone released the Fairphone 4, the company's first 5G device. It's a respectable competitor to other phones on the market, as it's similar in specs and capabilities to Apple and Samsung smartphones, although it's only available in the UK and EU. For a detailed review of the Fairphone 4, you can check out our expert opinion on the Fairphone 4's quality, capability, and connectivity.
Unlike most phones that are all but impossible to repair without specialist knowledge and skills, the Fairphone 4's back cover can be dismantled by hand, and the front display can be replaced by removing a few screws. The screws can be removed with a screwdriver you have at home, eliminating the need to purchase tool kits from the phone's manufacturer.
This does create one issue: smartphones are given an IP rating, which determines the effectiveness of the device's sealing, and how many dust and water particles can penetrate the phone's crevices. The newest Apple and Samsung phones received an IP68 rating, making them dust and waterproof, and capable of surviving short-term water submersion.
Because the Fairphone 4 can be opened so quickly, its ingress rating is lower than most smartphones.
Fairphone 4 received an IP54 rating and is considered weatherproof, as it's protected from dust particles and can withstand brief water splashes. So, customers would have to choose between waterproof devices and easily repairable devices.
"The IP rating is challenging for modular devices. The easier it is to dismantle or repair, the more difficult it is to make waterproof," Ballester says. "But with Fairphone 4, we achieved IP54, which is weather resistant. So, you can have it out there with some rain, and it will be fine, but you cannot submerge it, but it's the first time we were able to give an IP rating to our modular device."
Consumers' right to repair has been at the forefront of sustainability initiatives for years, with recent backing by federal governments. Electronic devices that are easy to repair can last longer, which makes them more affordable and means they stay out of landfill for as long as possible.
And to Ballester, the right to repair a Fairphone could mean customers realizing they have a right to repair all of their electronics.
"We want to demystify technology a little bit and make sure that people understand that the display is just a component connected to the rest of the phone, and as long as you know how to remove those screws and connect a new one, which is very easy, that you'll be encouraged to fix your toaster, or your other things," he says.
"That's the goal: that repairability becomes something normal and that manufacturers need to provide spare parts, whether it's for a hair trimmer or toaster or any electronic device, that people are aware that, 'Hey, I should be able to have access to spare parts.'"
How device longevity can decrease e-waste
Long-term software support is uncommon in the smartphone industry, but it's a pillar of Fairphone's mission, according to Ballester. When older devices can continue to receive updated software, it decreases the need and desire to buy a new device and, inevitably, decreases e-waste.
The Fairphone 2 was released in 2015 and is still supported by Fairphone's most recent software. For comparison, the latest version of iOS is 16.3, and the oldest iPhone that supports it is the iPhone 8, released in 2017. The oldest phone Android's latest software, Android 13, supports is the Google Pixel 4, which was released in 2019.
Long-term software support also makes older devices safer, as more recent software updates usually deliver updated security and privacy safeguards.
"That commitment to software support longevity is quite unique in the industry, and we think it's very important to keep your hardware working well and to, in the end, lower the CO2 emissions that hardware contributes to because the less phones you need to buy, the less you will be polluting," Ballester says.
"That's why we extend the lifetime of our products for as long as possible. For Fairphone 2, it's been seven years, and we hope for the next devices to last longer than that."
The Fairphone 4 is protected under a five-year warranty, significantly longer than that offered in the rest of the smartphone world, where they end as early as after the first year. Warranties guarantee that customers can have their phones replaced, repaired, or refunded if the phone is defective at the manufacturer's fault.
When the Fairphone 2 was released, Ballester explained that the company needed more data to confidently say its device could last as long as it has. Now, with the Fairphone 4, the company is as confident as ever that it can withstand its five-year warranty -- and even outlive it.
"It shows to the customer that we believe in what we're putting on the market. We think that they can use it for five years, and it might be longer. We are increasing the warranty, which in Europe would have been two years, and we increased it and make ourselves liable for five years," he says. "Now, with Fairphone 4, everybody gets a five-year warranty, which is a first in the industry. I think it should show what companies can do."
Ethically sourced materials and a commitment to recycling
Smartphones are a spectacular blend of metals, plastics, and rare minerals; raw elements from the earth transformed into a device capable of calling, texting… and endless scrolling.
Ballester says that any electronic device has between 40 and 50 different metals inside of it, and Fairphone is no exception, counting in at 45 metals. Fairphone's goal is to ethically source 70% of the Fairphone's weight in conflict minerals by the end of this year.
"They are spread over tens and hundreds of different components that come from different companies, so that's why it's a lot of work to make sure these materials are coming from the sources we want them to come from," he says.
The commitment to ethically sourcing conflict minerals is why Fairphone became the first electronics company to incorporate Fairtrade Certified Gold in its supply chain. Fairtrade Gold aims to ensure that gold miners are supplied with livable wages, acceptable working conditions, and proper mining practices.
Fairphone strongly believes in recycling a device at the end of its run to reuse the precious metals inside the phone. Their policy is that, for every phone placed for sale on the market, another phone is recycled. This circular method keeps the company's e-waste neutral.
Fairphones are recycled via the company's trade-in program and through a partnership with Closing the Loop, a Dutch social enterprise that helps decrease e-waste. Closing the Loop collects Fairphones in countries without sophisticated recycling protocols.
"The bulk of our devices, we collect come from countries where there's no recycling infrastructure and where the likelihood that these devices would end up in a place where they should not end up is really high," Ballester says.
However, the US is the only country that never ratified the Basel Convention, and it continues to export millions of pounds of e-waste and plastic yearly. The federal government has yet to create laws that outlaw importing and exporting e-waste, limiting the nation's ability to abide by the provisions fully.
Fairphone is for everyone, but Ballester acknowledges that a specific type of person is interested in buying the device, such as someone who is more aware of the implications of purchasing smartphones.
Fairphone's customer knows that if they disagree with a company's values, they won't give that business their money. Anyone who wants to do their part in creating a more sustainable world should consider buying a Fairphone.
"It's also people that are not wanting to follow what everyone else is doing and want to have a small contribution to a better world," Ballester says. "Fairphone's focus on creating systemic change is very important for the type of customers that buy Fairphones and want to invest in companies that are contributing to systemic change and not just change within their company."
It's hard to tell whether Fairphone has managed to make much impact on the rest of the smartphone industry itself, but it's also clear that change is coming as awareness of the impact of our devices on the environment becomes clearer.
Similarly, Samsung partnered with right-to-repair proponent iFixit and publicized manuals from its popular Galaxy line for customers wanting to repair their devices. Fairphone itself has recently raised another €49 million, which will be used in part to accelerate the integration of fair and recycled materials in the company's full product portfolio, and to develop new products: perhaps being sustainable can be good business, too.