Fairphone takes a selfie

A Fairphone too can take a selfie

I am the proud owner of a Fairphone. It’s a smartphone, my very first, but I consistently call it a Fairphone, as if all people know what I mean by that. They don’t. Let me tell you what it is and why I so desperately wanted one. 

In May 2010 my beloved cellphone of 4 years old passed away. Cause of death: it drowned in my purse because I had failed to close the water bottle I kept in there. After this loss I did not buy a new phone, which turned out to become somewhat of a (cult) statement. I simply asked friends and family for their used ones. These phones did not always work properly (hence I speak in plural, I had to switch phones every now and then), and most certainly were not smart. How was I to know the world would change so rapidly? In the present day most people I come across cannot imagine life without their smartphone; telecom shops urge you to get a new model every year. While I was still using my phone to call and text, my friends’ phones became a lifeline with which they documented and managed their life. I was missing out..

So why did I not just buy a new phone? It’s a thing of principle, I guess. Or maybe it’s my conscience. Or small-scale idealism: be the change you wish to see in the world. I don’t like how most people carelessly acquire and discard automatic devices. I don’t like how most of us conveniently disregard what it took to produce them and what happens after we are done with them. The change that I have been trying to be (and wish to see in the world) consists of not being indifferent to the implications of owning a mobile phone.

Coltan in the CongoI’m no expert on the composition of a (smart)phone . I do know, however, that phones contain various valuable minerals for which the Congolese soil is a fertile source. It has resulted in corruption and violence. A correspondent for the Guardian writes:

 “The profits from the minerals finance the bloodiest conflict since the  second world war.”

Miners (children amongst them) work in unsafe conditions and hardly profit from the high demand for these minerals. Industries that buy and use the minerals do not (care to) know their supply chain and cannot guarantee their phones to be free of blood.

The trouble is not only the construction of the phone, but also its demolition. Have you ever wondered what happens to all these smartphones 1.0/2.0/3.0 that we trade in for the 4.0? They end up on big dumpsites in poorer regions of the world, for example in China and Africa. Often illegally. There are strict regulations for developed countries on how to recycle e-waste, a type of waste that is both hazardous and valuable and growing exponentially. Some companies feel that rules are there to be broken, so they ship off the useless electronics under the pretense of donating it as second-hand goods to poorer countries to be re-used. Women and children climb the mountains of e-waste that have arisen in search of metals like gold and copper, and burn the redundant components – including toxic chemicals. Our e-waste, amongst it our old phone, poses a major threat to the environment and people’s health.

Permanent Error

Check out Pieter Hugo’s compelling photo series “Permanent Error”

Some people, like my mother, say it’s not a consumer’s problem to solve. After all, aren’t we trying to do the right thing by recycling these phones? Aren’t the countries that take in the e-waste responsible because they do not regulate its disposal? The simple answer is that these countries do not have the capacity to either prevent illegal imports or to safely recycle electronics. Megacompanies that operate transnationally disobey laws and legislation using dirty little tricks like shipping a few working computers in containers full of e-trash; traders then have to accept the entire container in order to get their hands on the working computers (read more here). That’s just one example. I, a single consumer, can’t go and change the contents of that container. What I can do is send off a message that I want to change things.

How? By supporting and participating in some great initiatives, whether they are initiated by small or big companies. A particular initiative I love (you guessed it)..is the Fairphone! This very cool social enterprise decided to just take the first step in the right direction. Via a crowdfunding campaign they sold 5000 Fairphones, or actually, 5000 phantom Fairphones. Once their target of 5000 was hit (and paid for!) production commenced. For me this meant I bought my phone in June 2013, and received it in January 2014 (proud owner of the first edition). My friends could hardly believe I blindly bought a phone, not knowing anything about its technical features (which is not to say that Fairphone did not provide information on chipset, interface, camera, internal memory and what not). I didn’t care about the phone, I cared for the idea!

What’s fair about the phone?

It uses conflict-free resources, offers fair wages to those who made it, and contributes to e-waste solutions. And Fairphone tells their customers all about it.

Fairphone did what I would want to do but are too lazy for, they took a look “at every mineral, component, person and process to reveal the real impact of electronics production, and [took] action to make improvements.” Like me they are realistic: “the phone is not a solution in and of itself – it’s simply a vehicle for change,” and optimistic, “you might not think that one action matters, but together our actions can truly make a difference.” It may be clear, Fairphone and I are a good match (although I’m starting to suspect that the phone is smarter than me). They say: “Fairphone is more than a phone. It’s a beginning.” I say: when will you begin?