The social enterprise behind the Fairphone wants the gadget to be a “storytelling device” that pushes the wider electronics industry to be more sustainable.
Bibi Bleekemolen, who is in charge of impact and innovation at the Netherlands-based organisation, said the success of the device showed there was demand for responsibly-sourced products.
She said the complexity of the supply chain behind the phone meant it was not possible to say the entire device was ethically sourced, but they have been able to claim this about key conflict minerals.
“It’s not our intention to say it’s [an entirely] fair product but to use it as a storytelling device, to show on this small scale it's possible and there's great demand for it, for the wider industry to try to do things more responsibly,” she said.
Bleekemolen said the tin and tantalum used in the phone were sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo from conflict-free suppliers, while many of the plastics are recycled. It is also dual sim and the battery is designed for a longer life span. Consumers are expected to keep the device for “at least” four years.
The Fairphone started out as an awareness raising campaign in 2011 but in 2013 an investor came on board and through crowdfunding the device was launched. The organisation partnered with a Chinese factory and picked an 'off the shelf' phone model that they were able to adapt. They also improved working conditions in the factory, establishing employee representation and a fund that workers can decide how to spend on workplace improvements.
Over two years the social enterprise has sold 60,000 Fairphones at €325 (£239) each, which has given it the profits to launch 'Fairphone 2', due to go on sale at the end of the year. So far 45,000 people have expressed an interest and they plan to produce between 100,000 and 150,000 phones a year.
“Not this time with a licensed model but to design it from the bottom up, which gives us more leverage with the materials we want to use, the suppliers we want to work with and integrate DIY repair into the design,” said Bleekemolen.
This means the 40-strong team will able to use recycled copper and tin and work to ensure the two other legally-defined conflict minerals – gold and tungsten – are conflict free.
When the first phone was developed the social enterprise considered production in Europe, but this was ruled out, for similar reasons to why they source from the war-torn Congo. “Fairphone wants to change the system from inside out and if you say: ‘We’re going to produce elsewhere’, then what good will it do for the Chinese factory employees?” said Bleekemolen.
“We want to show that in these difficult contexts it’s also possible and desirable to stay engaged and to take responsibility for the things happening there, rather than assembling or finishing in Europe, which is just the tip of the iceberg of the electronics supply chain.”
She added: “The product for us is a means to reach out to the supply chain and connect the consumer to that story.”