Have you ever wondered where the materials in you smartphone come from? A young business in Amsterdam, Netherlands, did! And created a fascinating product.
Lightning the darkness
The project initially started as an awareness campaign of the Waag Society, a pioneer in connecting society with technology. They organized several events to show people what is inside their products, how the supply chains work, where materials are being sourced, how working conditions are in some countries (especially Congo) and so on. At Lowlands Festival for example, visitors could bring their old phones, screw them open and see what is inside – learning by doing. But why did they pick out a smartphone for such an awareness campaign?
“A phone is maybe the most used product in not only the Western world (of all electronic devices) – but it’s not only a phone, it’s something personal. It connects you to friends, to family, to work, it’s their gate to the outer world. It’s next to their bed when they sleep, it’s in their hands the whole day.” (Roos van de Weerd)
So it is clear that the smartphone would be the best choice to tell an appealing story showing the complex supply chain behind it. Soon after the small group of activists realised that raising awareness is just one step forward but not the solution, they wanted to go further. Joining festivals, conferences and other events, they got into contact with huge possibilities but also quite some boundaries and constraints: What resources and knowledge would they need? How far could they go with it? How would the be able to make a “fair” smartphone? How would they deal with suppliers in China who have suppliers themselves, who again have suppliers, who have suppliers once more… and all of a sudden, they became a company with only two people but a really good idea.
Bas van Abel, the former creative director of Waag Society, saw a lot of potential and wanted to pursue the idea. Five more people came in, found the right partner in manufacturing, kick-started a crowdfunding campaign – the first money came in, and this enterprise, that had never made a phone before, had to literally built this fair smartphone.
Rethinking economy – step by step
“Are you a fair phone? No, we’re not.” (Roos van de Weerd)
The idea spread quickly and soon the targeted 25.000 units were sold. The production, based in China was about to start and Fairphone was more in a spotlight than ever before. Everyone – newspapers, initiatives, public organisations and industries were looking on them. And with only 25.000 phones in production, the attention earned was standing in no relation. 25.000, a really small number (Apple sells this amount in about two hours), means always being last in the row. Some suppliers did not deliver in time, at some point a manufacturer sold thousands of back covers to someone else. They have been under high, continuous pressure all the time. But this is what one has to deal with if one wants to build “a seriously cool smartphone that puts social values first.”
Shortly, the company pays considerably fair wages in the assembly factory in China. However, they wanted to prevent a situation in which only the workes putting together the parts of the Fairphone would profit from the social idea behind it. So for each phone 5€ are being put aside and matched by likewise 5€ from the factory operating company. The resulting 250.000€ inside this so called worker welfare fund can be used according to the wishes of the employees who can choose between training, improvements in the factory or their salary. Moreover, their employer is interested in open discussions with the workers.
Every Fairphone sold adds 3€ to set up projects to promote safe e-waste recycling in countries where this is not yet being done and people try to burn out precious materials an a toxic environment just to make a living. They do so by working together with “Closing the Loop”, a foundation that aims to maximise the reuse and recycling of phones worldwide by setting up projects locally.
Next to this, the use of conflict-free resources helps people on site to work in a safer environment. It has an open-source software, it is easily repairable and every cent of the 325€ a buyer pays can be tracked a the detailed cost breakdown structure. Moreover, some of the suppliers can be tracked down in this list with more details to come.
But the most interesting facts are not the technical details but everything that is behind the phone itself – the company and its values, visions and goals. Some employees of Fairphone eat meat and others use Macs. They are not perfect, but this is what they are trying to bring across.
We don’t want to highlight the negative, leaving people with guilt. We want to give them a solution, or better, a way that they can step in. Bringing them closer to the source of the products, change the relationship with their product and maybe then we could actually change things together. Consuming is a political act. (Roos van de Weerd)
It is impossible to change the world in one day; one has to do things step by step. This is also why Fairphone uses only tin and tantalum sourced from the DRC by working with CFTI and Solutions for Hope. There are four well-known conflict minerals in the Congo region,
which are the three T’s and G: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The next step would be to also add the other two, as soon as there is a possibility to do so. Demand, in these terms, is crucial to dictate certain standards like labour conditions and further.
Another step would be the further improvement of the situation in Congo. Some may think that the wages or labour conditions are the worst thing about it, but Bibi from the Fairphone team talked to the people working in the mines and their biggest wish is an instrument (spectrometer) to measure the value of what they mine. This would put them and their associates in a position to sell the mined minerals for a better, more reasonable price. Fairphone would not distribute these themselves, but in cooperation with conflict-free thin initiatives. Conflict-free mines are not places of cheerful colaboration, there still is child labour and miners stay underground for hours, sometimes days. But at least they are not controlled by armed men anymore. As said, one improvement at a time. Step by step.
“When you’re a company that tries to do things different, you’ll always be looked at differently, because people expect something different from you. It sets the bar high.” (Roos van de Weerd)
The hardest part of being different or sustainable in the smartphone industry, is to plan commercial strategies with a product that does not only focus on technical innovation but puts social values and transparency first. Fairphone tries to uncover the whole supply chain in a branch, where an unreveal agreement is standard. The business is not transparent; it is hard to gain a foothold because you do not know with whom the others work.
It is an easy thing to scale up the production, some suppliers might get under pressure, work too hard and pay lower wages, but they will make it. Fairphone has expansion plans for the future, definitely, but not in this way. The next batch of phones will be 35.000 units strong, distributed in Europe only. Even if the company has some experienced people on board now, it shall be a fair phone kept under control, without pressure on its supply chain.This strategic business decision was a hard decision, because if you are good at making profit with a product that pursues the target to be sustainable, then… you have to recap your values and understand, that you have to grow gradually if you want to stay that good. This is not only related to regional but also to product expanding.The mission to make people understand their consumption decisions and thereby rethinking the whole commercial system is “enough” for one company. For 2015 and further, they want to look beyond, where they will face new, difficult questions: If you sell phones around the world, where can people send them to? Which distribution channels do you choose?
“It’s not bad to make profit. The commercial system is there for a reason and it works, but you could rethink the way it works, you don’t have to make money on the backs of people.” (Roos van de Weerd)
Now it is your turn
“If a bigger group of consumers will be more critical, then companies will want to move as well, because they want to sell stuff.” (Roos van de Weerd)
As you have maybe noticed clicking through www.gruene-helden.org, this turnaround is what we actually are observing and a smartphone is an ideal platform to join the movement and put social values first!
Starting in May 2014, a new batch of Fairphones will be sold. You could be one of the next buyers, holding a new, partly fair smartphone in your hands, showing another type of status symbol. A symbol for a desired change in the economy.