Ethically-Produced Fairphone Tries to Change the World

by Matt Klassen on May 27, 2013

Granted in a mobile market dominated by considerations of phone features, speed, power, network accessibility, and colour, thinking about how people and the environment are impacted through the production of your phone likely doesn’t register as a priority, but Netherlands-based Fairphone is trying to change that, one ethical step at a time.

In fact, Fairphone is trying something in the smartphone world that no one has ever tried before: building a capable mobile handset without screwing anybody over, and its not only hoping its corporate philosophy will serve as an attraction for more socially and environmentally aware mobile users, but that its production model will serve as an example “for other companies to build quality products for consumers without ravaging the environment or treating workers like grist for the mill.”

But will such an eco-friendly, worker-friendly approach work in a world dominated by the likes of Apple, Google, and Samsung, or will consumers simply continue to buy their smartphones in blissful ignorance of the impact such devices have on the world at large?

I’ve written at length over the years of both the social and environmental impact of the modern smartphone production process, with tales of abhorrent working standards along smartphone supply lines joining reports of the veritable toxic soup of dangerous chemicals contained in the handsets to create a picture of advanced mobile technology that is, with no exaggeration, the most damaging device of this generation.

And its hard to parse which mobile sin is actually worse, the short term abuse of workers who are forced to work extended hours for paltry pay doing mind-numbing monotonous labour or the long term environmental impact that will see our grandchildren paying for the environmental abuses wrought from the production (and improper disposal) of our favourite gadgets.

It is in this current mobile milieu that Fairphone arrives on the scene, the company that began as an industrious, passionate, and likely somewhat naïve mobile start-up several years ago, now ready to start its initial production run.

As the company reports, the Fairphone needs 5,000 pre-orders to officially begin production, and will sell for a total of US $436 (click here to purchase). That price reportedly includes taxes and “what you get for that is an unlocked, 4.3-inch smartphone running Android 4.2, powered by a quad core processor. It has an 8 megapixel rear camera, and a 1.3 megapixel front facing shooter, with dual-SIM trays for easy carrier switching and international travel.”

While the phone is certainly capable enough to succeed in today’s market, it’s the production process and corporate philosophy that’s really the key concept of the device. The handset itself is made with materials from a “completely transparent supply chain,” meaning the company is looking closely into each mineral used in the production of each component of the phone, the people who manufacture each part, and the various processes involved and their “social and ecological impact.”

This information will then be made available to everyone, with the promise that when deficiencies are found they will prompt change, in both the short and long term, as the company collects a catalogue of best practices that it intends to share with the entire mobile industry.

While I do fear that our interest in performance, power, and features will once again lull us back into our blissful sleep of ignorance, I do appreciate what Fairphone is trying to do: produce a capable Android handset with the primary goal of shedding light on the darker side of the mobile world; the side where companies ravage the earth and humanity alike to cheaply produce our favourite technology.

If Fairphone is able to even partially achieve its mission of creating an ethically produced device and compiling a best practices list for the industry, I would consider it a success.

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