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This startup is radically changing how smartphones are built

But Fairphone’s third smartphone, which launched this week, offers a glimpse into just how difficult it is to reshape the labyrinthine global network behind our tech.

This startup is radically changing how smartphones are built
[Photo: courtesy Fairphone]

The smartphone (or computer) you’re reading this on is not good for the planet.

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Because of planned obsolescence—or the practice of deliberately designing devices not to last—phones aren’t very easy to repair and typically end their lives in e-waste-ridden landfills. Research has shown that just buying a new phone uses about the same amount of energy as using an older phone for 10 years. Many of the primary metals that go into making a smartphone are often mined by people—and sometimes children—working in terrible conditions, with little economic security. Some metals are mined in conflict zones where their extraction directly supports war.

Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, is trying to shift away from these exploitative materials and the supply chains that enable them. Fairphone got its start as an awareness campaign in 2010, but it incorporated in 2013 with the goal of reforming supply chains from within the electronics industry as a manufacturer. After launching its initial phone in 2013, the company went on to design a modular smartphone, 2015’s Fairphone 2, of which it sold 125,000 devices. This week, the brand released the Fairphone 3. It’s the product of more than three years of work on the company’s goals of ethical materials sourcing—and it offers a glimpse at just how difficult it is to achieve ethical standards in hardware design.

[Photo: Fairphone]

It’s almost impossible to track your phone’s innards

In the new Fairphone, five materials—tin, plastic, gold, tungsten, and copper—are partially derived from what the company has deemed ethical conditions. That means something different for each material, as each element is mined or sourced in different contexts. Fairphone sets its own standards for what counts as a “fair” material, though it’s primarily influenced by the working conditions of the people who are mining the heavy metals (the company also utilizes third-party standards, like Fairtrade’s gold certification). Recycling is also included in the company’s concept of fair materials: The Fairphone 3’s tin, plastic, and copper are about 50% recycled.

In addition to addressing these five materials, Fairphone is now tackling three others: cobalt, lithium, and a rare earth metal called neodymium. By the end of 2019, the company says that 40% of these eight “goal” materials will be ethically sourced or recycled. The goal is to hit 70% fair sourcing for all eight of these elements by the end of 2020.

That might not sound like much—especially since these percentages only refer to eight materials within the phone, not the entire phone. Most smart phones, including Fairphone, have about 40 different materials that are integrated in different ways on different components, each of which has its own complex supply chain. There can be as many as five different companies in between the manufacturing of the component and the origin of the materials.

Because of the vast tangle of a smartphone’s supply chain, Fairphone decided to focus on supply chains where the company believes its research could have the biggest impact, like gold and cobalt. Other materials are further down the company’s priority list because Fairphone has determined it won’t be using enough of them to help spark widespread supply chain change. For instance, the construction industry uses far more steel than the electronics industry does, so Fairphone has decided not to focus on improving steel supply chains for the time being.

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[Photo: Fairphone]

Tracing the path of a tiny piece of gold

But even these seemingly straightforward goals are far from easy to achieve, as illustrated by the challenges the company faced with finding ethical sourcing for the gold it uses on four of the Fairphone 3’s components.

Fairphone’s value chain manager Laura Gerritsen began by mapping out where gold is used on each component, and decided to start with the circuitboard because it uses the most gold by weight. Then she reached out to the company’s suppliers to understand exactly where the gold was coming from. From there, she followed each supplier’s trail of sub-suppliers until she finally discovered the mines where they were sourcing from. She was then able to convince suppliers to switch to mines that had been certified by the organization Fairtrade, which ensures standards for safe working conditions, women’s rights, and transparency, among other criteria. For the circuit board alone, this process took nearly two years.

For the Fairphone 3, Gerritsen started to scale up this model so that the gold on more components of the phone is also Fairtrade certified, which resulted in tracing three more supply chains.

While gold has been one of Gerritsen’s success stories, other metals have proven elusive so far. Take cobalt, which is a core material in batteries—and predominantly comes from Congo, where miners (including children) work in horrific conditions. Gerritsen says that Fairphone has received a grant from the Dutch government to work on understanding what’s going on in Congo’s cobalt mines and in the communities that work in them so that the company can find ways to support a transition to fairer labor practices.

That means supporting the “formalization and improvement of the sector instead of turning away from it and trying to ban it,” Gerritsen says. “That’s the path we’re following.” Fairphone hopes to codify some of its findings into a program to roll out in 2020.

[Photo: Fairphone]

Next up: salvaging batteries from e-waste

Fairphone is also trying to set up a circular economy around its smartphones. When it comes to sourcing its cobalt batteries, the company is shipping containers full of e-waste from countries like Ghana and Nigeria back to Europe, where it is attempting to salvage the batteries. While recycled cobalt hasn’t yet made it into the company’s phones, Fairphone cofounder and circular innovation lead Miquel Ballester says Fairphone is starting to perform tests with that goal on the horizon.

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The key to all of this? Consumers. You probably don’t think about the dozens of supply chains behind your pocket-sized computer. But Gerritsen says that for Fairphone to be able to make a lasting impact, convincing people to insist on ethical materials in their phones is vital.

“To actually scale these kind of initiatives, demand is really important,” she says.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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