Green shoots: Fairphone

The fairtrade movement has been around for decades. In some ways it is mainstream, with supermarkets routinely stocking fairly traded coffee and sugar and many other products. In other ways it remains somewhat marginal, because while certain fairly traded ingredients and foods are readily available, other sectors remain untouched. Fairwear clothing has brought fair trade certification to fashion, and metals and jewelry were first certified in 2013.

Electronics is a sector with a legacy of human rights issues. They begin with the mining of the metals, often in Africa and in appalling conditions. Then the phones are often assembled using sweatshop labour. They are marketed, sold and used, and further abuses occur when they are thrown away. Old electronics are often taken apart and informally recycled in developing countries.

Some of the world’s leading electronics brands have been repeatedly named and shamed for these practices, but it is possible to do things better. The Fairphone company have proved it by producing a mobile phone handset made from fully traceable metals, and assembled in good working conditions.

The Fairphone handset also considers the environmental impact of electronics, and it has been designed to last. It is modular, so it can be easily repaired or upgraded without having to replace the whole phone. They will take phones back when customers are done with them, selling them on secondhand where appropriate or recycling them.

Fairphones are more expensive than the normal high street offers, unsurprisingly. As a small company, they work to a slower product development timetable that means their technology is always slightly behind the market. Neither of those things has stopped the first two editions of the Fairphone from selling out, demonstrating consumer demand for more ethical electronics:

“When Fairphone was founded five years ago,” the company reports, “we set out to show the industry, and the world, that a fairer way is possible. Longer-lasting design, fairer material sourcing, better working conditions, and improved methods of reuse and recycling were our main goals. The Fairphone 2 was our chance to prove that all of this is possible, and that people are hungry for more sustainable, ethical options.”

At the time of writing there isn’t a current Fairphone on the market, so the company is most useful as a proof of concept rather than an established alternative. They may have a Fairphone 3 in the works, or their main contribution may be to blaze a trail for the wider industry to follow. Either way, Fairphone have proven that fairer electronics is possible.

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