There are few products in our world as amazing as our smartphones. It's an entire computer shrunk to pocket size, connecting to the world through the cellular network and WiFi. And it's changing everything.
They may be tiny and light, but they come with tons of baggage. In America alone we throw 150 million of them away every year. They are made with conflict minerals, where the sale of tantalum, tin and tungsten is financing civil wars. Some of them are produced in sweat shop conditions by exploited workers. They are sealed up so that they cannot be easily repaired.
Yvon Choinard of Patagonia once told Joel Mackower, founder of GreenBiz.com, why he wouldn't own an iPhone:
Try and open up an iPhone," he said. "Try and get it repaired. It's a disposable item...they don't want you to fix that iPhone, they want you to buy a new one next year. I can't relate to a company like that.
Then there's the Fairphone. It's not the fastest or lightest smartphone around. But it's built from the ground up around the principles of openness and fairness. This is a serious challenge. Why? Because there are serious problems and here are just a few:
Mining. There are 40 different minerals in a smartphone, and several of those minerals are at the root of problems from pollution to child labor to civil war. Fairphone tries to go right to the source and buy minerals and metals that were mined fairly, paying decent wages to the miners and minimizing environmental degradation.
Design. The phone is designed to be open source and totally openable so that you can change the battery, upgrade parts and fix it when it breaks.
Video from Fairphone on Vimeo.
Manufacturing. The Fairphone is built in China like most of the others, but the company picks its suppliers because of their "willingness to work on social and environmental performance, as well as adhere to our technological requirements.
Lifecycle. The phones are designed to be upgradeable and repairable so they have a longer life. When it's finally time for replacement, the company will take it back. This is all remarkable stuff. The Fairphone 2, which was revealed on June 16, takes it up to an even higher level with fully modular construction, ease of repair, a built-in rubber case to protect the screen and a "mature" platform. It's not the fastest but it does the job, offering "a nice balance between functionality, performance, availability and cost."
It's not cheap at €525 (that's about $580 U.S. today) although the way the euro is going, by the time the phone is available in North America next year that number might be a lot lower. But there's always a price to pay for ethically made products, and many are willing to pay it. There are others who demand products that are built to last, that are repairable, that are recyclable and that are open-source. (I'm feeling a bit guilty about my iPhone right now.)
In a mean-spirited review on Wired UK of the first Fairphone, the reviewers were unimpressed with ethics, concluding:
The Fairview phone is very much a so-so midrange phone, with little in the way of frills and is let down by its low-res screen and uninspiring performance. Its ethical ideals are admirable but it will likely gain more sales by raising its spec to match that of price rivals... it's a choice between paying for ethics, or paying less for a better device. We can't make that call for you.
What about you? Would you pay more for ethics?
Related on MNN and TreeHugger:
- Don't toss it, fix it with the Pop-up Repair Shop
- 17 sustainability-minded college campuses
- And if you think making a phone is hard, try making a toaster.