Your gadgets are made of materials and components sourced from all over the world and assembled in China: and they often leave a wake of human rights abuses and environmental damage in their wake. Fairphone aims to change everything
New smartphones can either appeal to your inner nerd, by offering the latest and greatest features, or your wallet, by undercutting others on price. But the Fairphone is going for a different tack by targeting shoppers’ consciences as the first “ethical smartphone”.
What this boils down to is avoiding buying computer chips and components manufactured with materials from “conflict mines”. Elements such as gold and tungsten are vital in the manufacture of phones but are often mined and smelted in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where workers are treated poorly and profits often fund brutal armed conflicts. Control of mineral wealth is said to have been behind some of the worst atrocities committed there in recent years.
The company also set up a “worker welfare fund” and contributed $2.50 for each phone it sells. The workers in Chinese factories can then decide what this money is spent on – in August they chose to pay themselves a bonus.
It may not be perfect, says Fairphone, but it’s “a starting point towards fairer products”.
Should you wish to, you can download a full list of suppliers from the company’s website and see exactly who sold each chip and component that went into making your phone.
The problem – which is quite the opposite of a problem, if you value human rights and the environment – is that other companies are now catching up with it.
Intel has pledged to make “conflict free” computer chips and Apple recently banned certain hazardous chemicals from its manufacturing chain. This is something that Fairphone is “relatively relaxed about”, a company spokesperson told the Telegraph – they’re just happy to be doing their bit to push the industry towards responsibility.
At the moment the numbers aren’t big: the company claims to have sold 58,000 Fairphones and only employs a staff of 31. But from this week it can be bought on a contract in the UK for the first time, which should boost sales as previously it could only be ordered directly from the manufacturer’s website.
The provider is the Phone Co-op, which has a similar ethos to Fairphone: the company is owned by its customers, rather than shareholders, and pays staff a Living Wage. It is also a member of the Fair Tax Mark programme, unlike some larger mobile providers which have more complex tax arrangements.
Vivian Woodell, chief executive of the Phone Co-op, said: “Now customers who want to buy ethically can get the complete package by getting their Fairphone on contract with The Phone Co-op.”
The Fairphone can be bought with no up-front fee on contracts of £22 a month and a pay-as-you-go option will launch shortly.
The concept behind the Fairphone may be unique but the hardware certainly isn’t: this is a mid-range Android smartphone of the like you can buy from a dozen other manufacturers.
In one sense, that’s bad: nothing stands out. In another sense, that’s great: you don’t have to make compromises to shop ethically.
You get a micro USB port for charging (but no lead, as Fairphone correctly say that every household already has several leads) a headphone jack and the usual power and volume buttons. The top and bottom of the handset are tough plastic and the middle section, which covers the removable battery, is aluminium.
It’s not the lightest or thinnest phone available, but it’s certainly not uncomfortably bulky. The screen is clear and bright, the camera decent. All in all it’s a very usable, unremarkable phone, which perhaps lacks some of the design refinement of other similar devices like the Moto G. “Boxy” was the word most often used when people saw it for the first time. “Functional” is a rather more generous way of putting it.
You may be able to get similar hardware for a few pounds a month less, but they won’t offer the peace of mind that the Fairphone does. If the welfare of others matters more to you than the latest features or a few pounds, then this phone is the only choice – and the hardware won’t make you regret your moral stance. The Fairphone is a bold and optimistic project which deserves every success.
Operating system: Android 4.2.2
Processor: quad-core 1.2Ghz
Memory: 16GB (expandable with MicroSD card)
Camera: 8 megapixel rear, 1.3 megapixel front
Screen: 4.3 inch qHD (960×540 pixels)
Size: 126mm x 63.5mm x 10mm