March 28, 2016

Smartphones kind of suck.

Mining minerals and metals for the phone parts create hazardous fumes and toxic waste, and workers who assemble iPhones also endure human rights violations. (Maybe you remember the spate of suicides by iPhone factory workers in China in 2010.) And when smartphones get tossed, hundreds of millions of them end up in landfills every year, where carcinogenic ingredients like lead and mercury can leach into soil and water. “There’s no getting around the hard truth: right now, there is no such thing as an ‘ethical smartphone,’” wrote Andrew Leonard for Salon in 2012.

Has anything changed in the past four years? Fairphone thinks so.

What is Fairphone?

In mid-2013, Dutch startup Fairphone made headlines for crowdfunding the first “ethical smartphone.” The company promised technology without the guilt: A smartphone made with fair labor practices, environmentally conscious material sourcing, and conflict-free minerals (at least for Europeans—the Fairphone isn’t available yet in the U.S.).

Two and a half years later, Fairphone has sold 60,000 of its original model and 16,500 of the next model, Fairphone 2 (which sells for about $584). Quartz’s Sarah Shearman concluded, “Fairphone’s success suggests that there are concerned customers prepared to vote for more ethical electronics with their wallets.”

But “more ethical electronics” is murky. Arguably, it’d be hard to make a less ethical smartphone than what’s available today. To determine how ethical Fairphone is and whether it’s a feasible alternative, we have to take a closer look at the company’s practices—and the larger societal issues surrounding smartphones in general.


Sourcing materials for smartphones is a double whammy: Since more than 30 minerals go into them, production requires a lot of mining; plus, that mining is often tied to violence. Caroline Winter for Bloomberg explains, “Minerals found in smartphones often come from conflict zones, most notably the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], where many mines are controlled by warlords and armed groups that use the profits to bankroll the country’s brutal, ongoing battles.”

In an attempt to avoid these conflict minerals, companies are turning to Indonesia instead of the DRC as a less-controversial source for the tin used in smartphones (which solders components to the circuit board). Two tin suppliers to Foxconn, Apple’s top manufacturer, get all of their tin from Indonesia. But even there, safety precautions go unheeded and miners are buried alive in pits that are illegal and dangerous. Tin mining in Indonesia may be “conflict-free,” but it’s not necessarily safe or regulated.

And then there’s pollution. In Australia, mining aluminum for smartphone casing releases coal dust and sulfur dioxide, harmful to lungs. In Inner Mongolia, processing rare earth metals produces toxic waste and “radioactive sludge” that causes cancer. And mining for copper in Chile for logic boards has created what environmental activists call “the biggest toxic waste dump in Latin America.”

So what is Fairphone doing differently? It’s a small start, but the company is using tin and tantalum from conflict-free mines in the Congo, and someone monitors the mines. Recycled copper is used for the printed circuit board. Fairphone is also trying to improve its sources of tungsten and gold, stating in a fact sheet, “We are working with partners to try to reopen the conflict-free tungsten trade in Rwanda to stimulate the local economy and establish a transparent tungsten supply chain…We are working to identify and integrate sources of fair trade and fair-mined gold into our supply chain.” Four out of 30 minerals leaves much to be desired, but with sourcing and processing being so complex and opaque, at least it’s something.

Workers’ Rights

There’s a huge discrepancy between soaring smartphone profits and the tiny salaries and pitiful working conditions of those who actually build them. Sarah Shearman of Quartz mentions injustices at smartphone assembly factories such as sweatshop conditions, poor pay, and no breaks during long shifts. Undercover reporters at an Apple factory outside Shanghai reported 16-hour shifts and tiny dorm rooms shared by 12 workers. Meanwhile, Apple made $18 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2015 alone—“the biggest quarterly profit ever made by a public company,” the BBC reported.

Fairphone is trying to not only improve labor conditions but also give workers a voice. At Guohong, the Chinese factory it uses, the company established a Worker Welfare Fund. Employee-elected representatives decide how to use the fund (higher salaries, better food, extra training, etc.) and liaise with management. Fairphone has donated $125,000 to the fund so far. The company also boasts, “Our production partner Hi-P has already made a number of concrete improvements, ranging from fire safety and protective equipment for employees to addressing systemic challenges such as working hours.”

But there’s a lot more work to do.  Fairphone Founder and CEO Bas van Abel admitted, “Conflict-free is not child labor-free. We know for sure there is child labor in our supply chain. Why? Because we work in Congo. We choose to work in Congo because we think by contributing to the work in Congo and giving people jobs there, there’s a chance to do something about child labor.” Overly optimistic sentiment? Time will tell.

Repair and Disposal

The tech industry, and particularly the smartphone industry, is based on convincing people to buy a new model at an ever-increasing clip. Companies do this with technological advances, incompatible updates, and the difficulty of repair.

Today’s smartphones are often very hard to open, with tough glue or solder cementing the battery in place. For instance, the HTC One Android smartphone, which came out in 2013, had a seamless, “zero-gap” design that makes it almost impossible to fix. “This phone was not made with openability in mind,” remarked iFixit. The site rates smartphones on repairability, and several recent phones rank poorly, including the HTC One M9, the Google Nexus 6P, and the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. (iFixit gave the Fairphone 2 a perfect score in this category.)

Even if people repair their smartphones, most don’t dispose of them responsibly. It’s difficult to find recent figures, but estimates of smartphone recycling rates range from 20 percent to as low as 11 percent. Forrester research analyst Doug Washburn thinks that’s because it’s much harder to recycle a smartphone than glass bottles or paper. Plus, Washburn says, smartphones are small, so it’s easy to stow them in a drawer and forget about them. At best, not recycling a smartphone prevents the reuse of precious minerals; at worst, the toxic components can seep into soil and water.

As previously mentioned, Fairphone excels here. The startup designed its modular phone with repairability in mind. Fairphone says you can “fix a broken screen in under a minute” and sells repair parts on its site. Repair instructions come with the Fairphone 2, and you don’t even need tools to replace the battery or display. Fairphone also launched an e-waste recycling program so Europeans can ship their old Fairphones back for free when they’re done with them, and other brands of smartphones are recycled as well.

Overall, the Fairphone 2 is Europeans’ most ethical smartphone choice, aside from continuing to use their existing phone. (Ethical Consumer rates it a 15 out of 20 on ethics, compared to the iPhone, which gets a lowly 6.5.) But there are other issues to consider.

Lingering problems

Whether you love Androids, iPhones, or something else, chances are, you get a new phone fairly often. Maybe that’s because it breaks—after all, our society has shifted from a mindset of “repair” to “replace,” particularly with electronics. Maybe it’s because manufacturers have trained us to upgrade our devices every two years, if not sooner. Either way, rapid consumption is the norm. When the novelty of the Fairphone wears off, will people still keep it around?

If consumers can shift their thinking, buy a Fairphone, actually repair it, and keep it for several years, that would reduce demand and waste. After all, people in other countries keep their smartphones for four or five years, wireless analyst Tina Teng told NBC News. Tech analyst Allen Nogee added, “In developing countries, with voice-centric phones and low incomes, people keep phones a long time.” But that’s probably more due to financial restrictions than ethical concerns. I don’t know if Americans can change our perception of using the same phone for years from “technologically resistant and out of touch” to “cool and ethical.” As those $18 billion attest, the latest Apple product is a compelling status symbol.

Another problem is Fairphone’s inferiority to other smartphones in terms of price, weight and aesthetics. “The Fairphone is an average mid-range smartphone, but it can’t really compete with the likes of the Moto G, which is less than half the price,” wrote Claudia Cahalane in a review for The Guardian. “The ideal would be something that looks and works like an iPhone, but is made and sold by a company like Fairphone. And that’s unlikely in the near future.” Rather than forcing ethically minded consumers to sacrifice something shiny and fun for something expensive and hefty, we need stricter and better-enforced regulations that hold all smartphone manufacturers to higher standards.

However, no matter how ethically it’s done, mining is still destructive. Friends of the Earth Europe writes that tin mining for smartphones “is almost certainly linked to the devastation of forests, farmland, coral reefs, and communities in Indonesia.” (Destroying fields of crops to make a smartphone will be ironic to anyone who’s played Farmville.) Ultimately, it’s hard to get around mining’s destruction, pollution and waste. Regulating it is a great first step, but ultimately, rare earth minerals aren’t a renewable resource. We need to figure out what else we can build smartphones out of and incorporate renewable energy if we want a truly sustainable solution.

So yes, as Fairphone’s leaders themselves point out, the most ethical smartphone is the one you already own. Better yet, use it to pressure smartphone manufacturers to improve their practices. To again quote Andrew Leonard on Salon, “Ironically, billions of people around the world are now in possession of the most powerful tools for facilitating grass-roots organization ever invented: ethically compromised smartphones!” Put those tweets, emails, and Kickstarter dollars to good use, and maybe one day, we’ll have a truly ethical smartphone.

Holly Richmond is a Portland-based writer. You can learn more about Holly through her website.