“Every so often you come across some article on Africa’s ‘blood minerals’ or the suicides at Foxconn,” says Nassos Katsamanis in reference to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer whose 1.2 million employees in China assemble consumer products for electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Nokia.
From his verdant balcony in the central Athens neighborhood of Mets you can see apartment buildings crawling up the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Scattered on the living room floor are his son’s wooden toys. Little Andreas has still not turned 2, but he can already tell rubbish from recycling.
“It’s important to know that what you consume – the way you live your life at the end of the day – is not a burden on another man or the environment,” says the 34-year-old who works as a researcher on voice recognition technologies at the National Technical University of Athens. In his palm, he holds a Fairphone, the world’s first so-called “ethical” mobile device which was recently shipped to him from the Netherlands.
Fairphone came about in response to growing criticism over the fact that mainstream electronics products, including those sleek cell phones, are produced using minerals which are mined in conflict-riven areas in Central Africa. When buying one of these products, consumers also help finance mass killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, these gadgets are assembled in factories with despicable working conditions and environmental standards.
Fairphone, on the other hand, ensures consumers that the tin and tantalum used in its device are conflict-free.
“As soon as I read about the project, I identified with it to some extent,” says Katsamanis, admitting that the effort is still in the early stages. Fairphone, which started out in 2010 as a public awareness campaign concerning conflict minerals in consumer electronics organized by three Dutch NGOs, evolved into a social enterprise three years later.
Fairphone, which like most mainstream companies also manufactures its phone in China, has created a worker-controlled fund which aims at improving employees’ labor conditions and wage levels. For every device produced at the site, the company and the factory each invest 2.50 euros in the fund. Meanwhile, the company tries to be as transparent as possible by releasing a cost breakdown report of where every euro is spent and by regularly publishing social assessment reports on its factory.
The Android-powered device has a micro-USB port (a charger is not provided with the phone; the idea is that there is at least one sitting in one of your drawers at home), dual SIM slots and a removable battery. The phone can be upgraded, repaired (heads-up: if you can’t fix it yourself, you will need to post it to the company’s service department in Holland), and, when the time comes, recycled by Fairphone after it has been shipped to the company free of charge. Everything has been designed with an eye on increasing the handset’s life cycle and reducing waste. It is estimated that about 140 million cell phones end up in rubbish dumps every year in the US alone.
“I like the philosophy behind it. It’s like the old desktop computers which you could open up to switch the motherboard or add some extra memory,” Katsamanis says.
From the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina can’t hide her enthusiasm about the project. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company has sold more than 55,000 handsets in a year and a half. However, “the phone is not the goal itself,” says the Russian, one of Fairphone’s 31 staff from 14 countries.
“It’s more a storytelling device. It talks about the bigger picture, what goes inside the phone and the complicated production processes and the problems related to it.
“Our goal is to create a fairer economy and our example to actually inspire the whole industry to change things and make interventions in the supply chain.”
Legislation signed by the Obama administration in 2010 compels US companies to identify the sources of minerals in their components, while a traceability scheme has been introduced by the United Nations. Firms such as Apple and Samsung have taken some steps in a more sustainable direction, however they claim that certification of origin is not always feasible due to the large number of intermediaries in the production process.
“We realize that we are very tiny at the moment and that alone we cannot bring about change. We would like other brands to join our mission and then we would have fulfilled our mission,” says Koreniushkina.
Would that not make Fairphone, well, redundant?
“We would like it if other companies started to produce their own ‘fair’ phone and then compete with them in terms of fairness rather than market share,” Koreniushkina says, adding that the production of a 100 percent fair phone is practically impossible because there are thousands of standards that could be improved.
“Another issue is, what do you consider fair?” she says.
The company fends off criticism that the Fairphone is a luxury choice aimed exclusive at well-off Western consumers.
“One of the things we would like to prove is that ethical production is not necessarily more expensive. Our phone is not priced as a luxury product,” Koreniushkina says. At 325 euros, the Fairphone is no more expensive than other midrange smartphones.
“Our target group is basically everyone, because nowadays almost everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, although the company stops short of prompting people to get rid of their working phones.
“We always encourage people to keep their phone because we think that the phone you already own, if working, is the most sustainable one. We don’t want to create more waste.”
Back in Athens, Katsamanis says that the stubborn economic crisis is not an obstacle to the success of the Fairphone.
“I do not think things would be any different if people were better off. In fact the crisis could provoke people into thinking that the real cost is not the price of the phone. The point is to think in terms of cause and effect, in a broader context,” he says.
If figures are any guide, few people think that way. Just 21 orders have been placed from Greece to date.