After a short three-week crowdfunding campaign, Dutch startup Fairphone has just reached its goal of 5,000 pre-orders and is slated to start deliveries in October. The company is producing an "ethical" high-end smartphone by watching over the entire process, from mining the ores to the assembly phase, making sure that workers are treated fairly and the environmental footprint is as small as possible.
Let's face it: we like our toys, and as far as technology goes, smartphones are way are up there on the list. In recent times, the smartphone industry has ballooned up to a gargantuan size and is now turning in tens of billions of dollars every year. We keep changing our phones more and more often, wowed by the latest specs, but we also tend to pay little attention to how the phone came into our hands.
The unfortunate truth is that manufacturing electronics often involves worker exploitation at almost every step of the way: from mining the minerals in Africa to assembling the products in China, workers are often underpaid and work in highly hazardous conditions, with local companies ready to break environmental regulations in order to make a quick buck.
In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, the profits from the extraction of minerals are often used to fund illegal activities. This is perhaps best exemplified with coltan (columbite-tantalite), a metallic ore used to manufacture the high-performance capacitors that go into nearly every single electronic device you've laid your hands on.
Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive and dangerous process, similar to how gold was mined in California during the years of the gold rush. Eighty percent of the world's known supply of coltan is in Congo, and since mining it is highly profitable, large chunks of lands (including many national parks) have been completely stripped out.
According to UN reports, once it is mined out, coltan then takes a very convoluted and hard-to-trace path through Central Africa, which often ends up funding bribes and illegal armed forces along the way before ending up in the electronics store next door.
Fairphone is a nonprofit startup based in the Netherlands that addresses these issues, and puts a strong emphasis on social awareness. What makes this an "ethical phone" are the facts that the workers involved gain a fair wage, work in a safe, healthy environment, and that the suppliers comply with local environmental regulations.
For instance, every bag of minerals, tin and coltan used to produce the Fairphone will be labelled and tracked to make sure it gets to its destination without unwanted detours. The phones are also assembled in a Chinese factory where a fund has been set up to ensure that fair wages are distributed among the workers.
As a startup with limited financial possibilities, Fairphone isn't able to influence every single step of the way quite yet but, as more units are sold (nearly 6,000 phones have already been pre-ordered at the time of writing), the company has pledged to reinvest a portion of its profits to further improve wages and working conditions at every step of the way.
"For 5,000 people to put down 325 euros for a phone they haven't held in their own hands means that this is more than a phone," says Bas van Abel, Founder and CEO of Fairphone. "People are investing in change, and showing that collectively we can open up complex supply chains and change the way products are made."
As the project was crowd-funded, transparency also played a central role: users were able to have a say in the design of the phone, and the company has pledged to publish a complete breakdown of the costs breakdown on its website, saying it has nothing to hide.
As for the phone itself, the specifications are quite competitive: a quad-core 1.2 GHz CPU running Android Jelly Bean, a capacitive 960 x 540-pixel touchscreen, dual cameras (8 and 1.3 MP), MicroSD support up to 32 GB, root access (meaning you can install the operating system of your choice), and more.
The phone is built with an eye toward the future: the battery is replaceable, you can buy spare parts for all of the crucial components from the company's website, and when you eventually want to get rid of it, you can make use of the company's sellback program.
The numbers may change slightly between now and August, when the final prototype will be ready. Then, a first batch of 20,000 Fairphones will be produced and delivered to customers in October.
The unlocked Fairphone will cost €325 (US$425), and be protected by a 2-year warranty. Currently the phone can only be shipped to Europe, but based on initial demand the company is expecting to expand its reach to the rest of the globe.
Below is a mini-documentary on the Fairphone.
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