4 billion of smartphones are used worldwide today and it seems impossible not to use them for more than 24 hours. But do we actually know what they are made of?
A smartphone gathers more than 30 different types of minerals. Some of them, such as tin or tantalum, come from conflict zones. That is the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo where most of the mines are under the control of rebel forces that are using child labor to extract minerals and that do not respect human rights. As no one really knows about this situation and due to the lack of responsible alternatives, the consumers are indirectly involved in this system.
But should we stop using smartphones because of that? The answer is obviously… no! To solve this issue, a change must be done in the way smartphones are produced and conceived.
It is a young Dutch designer, Bas Van Abdel, who has first tried to tackle this issue in 2010. Aware of this critical situation in the smartphone industry, he decided to take up a challenge: create the first sustainable and ethical phone, the « Fairphone ».
In 2010, he launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to raise funds for the production of a first batch of 5 000 Fairphones. In three weeks, 10 000 orders were registered and it gave birth to the Fairphone start-up.
The Fairphone 1 tackles the supply chain transparency issue. The company tries to work as much as possible with responsible suppliers and use « clean » minerals that are not coming from conflict zones. With Fairphone 1, the company uses radical transparency regarding its supply chain, but acknowledges that there is still room for improvement to reach the objective of a 100% responsible and sustainable procurement. However, Fairphone 1 has been a great consumer success with more than 60.000 smartphones sold in total.
The Fairphone 2, that is to be released in summer 2015, tackles another issue of the smartphone industry: planned obsolescence. Most of the smartphones are not conceived to last and this contributes to a growing production of electronic waste (known as e-waste). Millions of smartphones end up in landfill each year. Today, only 7% of the electronic components used in mobile devices are recycled. To tackle this problem, the Fairphone 2 has been designed in such a way that it is easy to repair. For Miquel Ballester, in charge of circular economy at Fairphone, « the design of the smartphone is key, combining the use of sustainable minerals and eco-conception, so that the product is built to last». All the plastic components used in the Fairphone are coming from recycled plastic and with Fairphone 2 the objective is to reach 50% of recycled components in total.
The start-up has also launched different recycling programs: one in Europe to take back the old smartphones of the Fairphone users and one in Ghana to raise awareness of the local population about recycling and about the danger of e-waste. Thanks to these initiatives 70 000 mobile phones have already been collected.
Even if Fairphone remains a small player compared to Apple or Samsung, it has created a real movement of responsible consumers that are now aware of the issues of the smartphone industry. For Bas Van Abdel, the main goal of Fairphone is not to become a leader in the smartphone industry but rather to enhance a real change in the way smartphones are produced: this implies more transparency on the supply chain and smart design in order to move to a sustainable phone. We now have a question: when will the first 100% ethical smartphone be available?