Making the Ethical Smartphone: How Fairphone Aims to Save the Planet

Posted on January 31, 2017

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Smartphones have no sustainable upgrade path and their construction creates lots of problems, from slave labour to environmental pollution. Step up Fairphone to save the day.

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Since the advent of the smartphone, handheld computing has become second nature. We carry these devices with us everywhere and rarely give a second thought to how they are made, their impact on the planet or the people who make them. And when it comes to upgrading to a new handset, few people think about their responsibility as a consumer, discarding their old phone rather than recycling it.

Well Fairphone thinks that model is outdated, unsustainable and unethical. Smartphone construction needs a new direction and Fairphone wants to create a virtuous cycle that starts by sourcing fairly mined materials at companies where workers are given fair conditions. Phones are modular in design so parts can be swapped, repaired and replaced more easily. This, says Fairphone, gives their phones a longer usable life and allows parts to be upgraded without junking the whole handset.

Apple Under Fire

The way that Apple builds its iPhones has brought its working practices into sharp focus – involving hazardous materials and child, or slave labour. Meanwhile the mines where rare minerals are sourced are found in countries torn by internal conflict, their practices dangerous and environmentally polluting. It’s unfair to pick out Apple as the only company where smartphone manufacture involves these problems and finding ethical materials or working practices is an ongoing problem.

How Fairphone chooses to build its phones is innovative but nothing new – Google had its own modular phone design in Project Ara but it chose to delay its release then terminated the project. Fairphone just seems more committed to maintaining its stance. With 130,000 sold it’s early days to see how popular the concept will become, but the big manufacturers could join the game and make phones a great deal more sustainable. The era of throwaway phones could potentially be a few short steps away.

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