Making phones fixable and more fairly produced

Does the performance of the Fairphone 2 match its ethical credentials?

At the launch of the Fairphone 2 in a pop-up shop in East London, a man steps out on to the street and sheepishly throws a test phone at the ground. He picks it up and hesitates briefly before inspecting the screen. It’s fine. A small crowd sighs in relief.

The Fairphone 2’s stretchy plastic back, made with 65 per cent recycled material, flexibly wraps around the edges of the phone screen. It has prevented the cracks and smashes with which many smartphone users are familiar.

By inventing Fairphone, its Dutch creators set out to build something robust, fixable and long-lasting so fewer phones would end up lost to the pile of roughly 70m unused handsets stuffed in the back of UK cupboards. Fairphone 2 is the second-generation phone the company has released, and it improves on the first generation’s sticking points.

“As well as being less breakable, it’s built out of modules. This is the first modular phone on the market,” says Fairphone founder Bas van Abel. “Basically you can easily change your own screen, change your own jack socket and so on if you need to. So from a sustainability perspective, it will make a big difference. If you can use your phone twice as long, the total footprint will see a huge decrease.”

“Our aim is not to stand out from the crowd, but to inspire the electronics industry to create positive impact in the supply chain.”

Fairphone’s ethical principles are myriad, and its dedication to sourcing conflict-free minerals arguably leads the way in the mobile phone sector. This is particularly admirable given how hugely complicated and intricate handsets are to make. They contain a multitude of components made from precious minerals, including those primarily mined from conflict areas.

Gold, tungsten, tantalum and tin, in particular, are often brutally acquired through mines controlled by local warlords in areas such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In these mines, labourers (some of whom are children) often work more than 12 hours a day under dangerous, difficult and abusive conditions.

As well as using certified conflict-free minerals for several of the device’s components, Fairphone has a recycling programme in Ghana to recover parts from old phones for reuse, and to reduce pressure and reliance on minerals mining long term.

A small Netherlands social enterprise with 40 staff, Fairphone is punching above its weight in its efforts to change the mobile phone industry. It is a B Corporation-certified social enterprise on a mission to financially support itself in producing a more ethical product rather than solely making a profit for shareholders. It pays a highest:lowest wage ratio of 4:1 and offers staff ownership in the company.

The company itself was founded somewhat by accident. It began in 2010 as a campaign to raise awareness of the use of conflict minerals in consumer electronics before registering as a social enterprise in 2013. By the end of 2015, Fairphone had sold 60,000 handsets of Fairphone 1 and recorded some 23,000 pre-orders – representing £8.9m – for Fairphone 2.

With the second model, the company has created the phone from scratch rather than adapting an existing phone on the market. The modular design is Fairphone 2’s main selling point, especially given the smartphone sector has been promising – but failing to deliver – one for several years. Cases in point: Google’s Project Ara and Puzzlephone, so named because it is designed to fit three modules together like a puzzle.

Fairphone is not the only company that says it takes conflict mining seriously. A 2015 Apple report explained that the company had been making inroads into tackling this issue since 2009. Samsung says it is doing the same. However, a 2014 study by ethical comparison site the Good Shopping Guide listed Fairphone as its top – or most ethical – choice. Motorola was second. Samsung was at the very bottom of the list and the iPhone was second from last.

Fairphone public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina tells Positive News: “Our aim is not to stand out from the crowd, but to inspire the electronics industry to create positive impact in the supply chain, including the mining area. We’re applauding any initiative that works on sourcing more responsibly from conflict-affected areas like Congo – unfortunately this is still quite rare.”

Apple sold 13m iPhone 6s in its first three days of sale. Fairphone hopes to sell more than 100,000 handsets in 2016. But what is most important to the team is making the supply chain more transparent in order to show that it is possible to ethically produce mobile phones. The team also wants to demonstrate consumer demand for fairer products and that mobile phone companies can benefit from Fairphone’s research. “I think we’ve definitely had an influence in this space,” van Abel says. “60,000 people paid for the Fairphone 1 when it was just a concept, and a similar thing happened with Fairphone 2. That sends a clear signal to the market.”

Fairphone 2 review:

Having previously reviewed the Fairphone 1, I found the Fairphone 2 improved beyond recognition. It was bigger and clearer with a five-inch, full HD LCD display and was, importantly, far more responsive to touch. I played around with apps and options much more freely and easily, and found the handset light and simple to handle.

Getting the back case on and off was a tiny bit fiddly, but once the phone was open, the transparent internal casing made it easy to see the various components and how, if needed, to take them apart. Repair organisation iFixit has given the phone 10 out of 10 for repairability. Spare parts include new screens for £64 and £15 to £26 for other parts. Still not necessarily cheap, but the screen seems far less likely to crack than others on the market.

A common complaint with Fairphone 1 was that its software was difficult to update. But the makers have ensured updating Fairphone 2, which runs on the Android 5.1 Lollipop system and has open-source code, is much smoother.

In general, the phone compares favourably with other mid to high-range smartphones. It is available to buy upfront for £387 or through a number of different contracts with The Phone Co-op (which uses the EE network for 3G, and Vodafone for 4G bundles) – currently the only UK telecoms company to stock the phone.