Can an ethically sourced mobile phone take on the tech giants?

The Fairphone initiative, launched to create completely conflict-free mobile phones, is picking up the pace. But will it ever be able to compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung? Will Simpson investigates

The mobile phone industry has long had a reputation for turning a blind eye to the suffering and human rights abuses associated with the mining of their products’ components. So does the advent of the Fairphone signal a sea change in a market where ethical considerations are usually not a high priority?

The Netherlands-based initiative was launched in 2010, initially as a research project to find out where the minerals used in mobiles come from. However, as the founders discovered more, they came to the conclusion that they could actually produce a new Android phone themselves, one with a completely transparent supply chain where all the components are guaranteed to be conflict-free.

However as Joe Mier, Fairphone’s community manager, is keen to point out, the project hasn’t reached its ultimate destination yet. “At the moment it is not 100% ethical – we have managed to get conflict-free tin and tantalum, but ‘fair’ doesn’t mean pushing a button like that. It requires a lot of different partners to have tracking and tracing and setting up a lot of closed pipe supply chains. Some of these initiatives like Fairtrade cobalt could take between three to five years.”

Some industry stakeholders are impressed. “It’s addressing supply chain models in a way which most manufacturers cannot yet do because of existing commercial agreements,” says Casper Jorna, terminals sustainability manager at Vodafone. “What is strong in their proposal is that they are open that it is not completely sustainable on the first run – they are addressing the most critical issues first and then working their way through the rest.”

Aside from some funding by the research institute Waag Society and the Dutch government, Fairphone has been largely crowdfunded, with supporters of the project pre-ordering a handset for €325 (£283). At the time of writing over a quarter of the initial 20,000 run have been snapped up. When – and if – the rest are sold, Fairphone have intimated that they will be looking for outside (ethical) investment to scale up their operation.

So is this the dawning of a new ethical era in the mobile phone market? “If it leads to other manufacturers making their own supply chain interventions then that can only be a good thing,” says Mier. “But the differentiator is that we are putting in all these social values and ideals before the greatest latest technological invention. We have a commitment to keep everything open and fair and honest.”

Mike Shaw, editor of consumer magazine Mobile Choice, adds a note of caution. “Paying a little extra for Fairtrade coffee that tastes as good as rival brands is one thing, but spending hundreds of pounds on a phone from an unknown and untested company is another altogether.

“For the price, the Fairphone’s specs are not particularly impressive, and I think the real benefit will come from what the device represents. But if the finished product can perform well, and the company gets good PR, it may push the larger manufacturers into using more ethical, conflict-free materials in their devices. And when the likes of Samsung and Apple start turning down suppliers, that’s when things will change.”