Fairphone: The ethically-sourced smartphone

FairphoneWhen it comes to being eco-friendly or ethically conscious, the mobile industry does not cover itself in glory. Truth be told, the electronics industry in general largely turns a blind eye to minerals harvested from war zones, poor working conditions, and the pollution which is an inevitable by-product of smartphone manufacturing. A Dutch start-up by the name of Fairphone is looking to change that by producing a powerful, Android smartphone that puts social values first.

Raising awareness

Fairphone grew out of a project which was designed to raise awareness about conflict minerals being used in electronics. The sourcing of the minerals used in your smartphone or tablet could be fuelling wars in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. The original project evolved into a social enterprise with the realisation that the best way to raise awareness and provide people with an ethical choice was to go ahead and make a product.

What about the big manufacturers?

Thanks to pressure from consumers, some of the big manufacturers have taken steps to clean up their act, but they are baby steps. You can check out investigations and guides by organisations like Greenpeace and Ethical Consumer. The sad truth is that most of the big manufacturers, including Apple and Samsung, don’t score very highly in the ethical stakes. They react to press coverage of poor working conditions in their supply chain, and consumer pressure can persuade them to make a greater effort, but it’s clearly not a priority for them until there’s a chance that profits will be affected.

The rise of Fairphone

In order to enter production the Fairphone team had to raise some cash and they didn’t want to surrender their autonomy by taking on investors, so they launched a campaign to see if they could persuade 5,000 people to pre-order the phone, pay up front and fund the first batch to be manufactured. The target was reached and production of the first 20,000 Fairphones has begun. The devices should start shipping in October this year. Around half of them have been sold already.

What is the Fairphone?

If you’re wondering about the specs, they are perfectly respectable. It was obviously important to make a decent smartphone that still reflects good value for money. The Fairphone has a 4.3-inch display with a resolution of 960×540 pixels, a 1.2 Ghz quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, an 8MP main camera, and a 1.3MP front-facing camera for video calls. It is also dual SIM, can take a microSD card up to 32GB, and it has GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and most of the other connectivity options and sensors you could want. The operating system is Android 4.2, and there’s a custom built overlay that designed to be accessible and easy to use.

The Fairphone costs £278.36 with no contract. They don’t include headphones or a charger by default because it’s wasteful and you probably already have them. The only other things that are missing are 4G LTE support (LTE networks are only just beginning to roll out in the UK) and NFC, which were both left out to keep costs down. In terms of value for money it compares well with other devices on the market.

Early days

The Fairphone project has a long way to go to achieve its aim of completely ethically sound smartphones, but this first release is an important step towards that goal. So far they have sourced conflict-free tin and coltan (tantalum) in DR Congo and they are making progress with cobalt in Zambia and tungsten in Rwanda. They are also working towards Fairtrade certified gold status, which guarantees good working conditions and a fair return for workers throughout the supply chain.

When it comes to the end of life and recycling, the Fairphone has been designed with longevity and second markets in mind. The ultimate aim is to establish a complete supply chain that is ethically sound and use recycled materials in the smartphone production. They are establishing new partnerships with like-minded organisations towards that end.

A real choice

For anyone bemoaning the lack of choice and transparency in the smartphone market, Fairphone is certainly worth a look. For under £300 you can snag yourself a decent smartphone and help to influence the industry by proving there’s real demand from consumers for socially conscious devices. If you like the idea or you’d like to learn more about it then check out the Fairphone website. It could be the start of something truly important.

About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced tech writer with a background in games development. He has been covering the world of mobile technology for several years now and writes for a variety of popular websites.