Would you pay a £200 premium for a phone that’s as conflict-free as currently possible and that has been manufactured in a factory that pays the local living wage?
Until now the ethical phone conundrum – if you’ve even considered it – has been between an ugly, outdated, £500 smartphone and well, all the innovation and cheap prices and annual upgrades the tech industry can muster. With the Fairphone 3, up for pre-order for €450 (£408) now and on sale from September 3, the Dutch social enterprise company looks like it has its breakthrough product.
Unless something goes drastically wrong, the Fairphone 3 should be its biggest seller by far. Fairphone has sold a very modest total of 175,000 units of its first two phones since 2013 but the company aims to ship 42,000 units of the Fairphone 3 by the end of 2019 and “scale further” in 2020.
When we say this phone has 2019 smartphone specs, we don’t mean Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus specs. The tech sheet is, in fact, almost identical to the Moto G7, our current recommendation for the best budget phone. Full HD screen with Gorilla Glass? Check. 12MP rear camera with Sony sensor? Check. 3,000 mAh battery, 64GB storage with microSD, Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 processor and 4GB RAM, 8MP front camera, NFC, dual SIM? Check and check.
Sure, the Moto G7 has a slightly bigger 6.2-inch screen with a teardrop notch to the Fairphone 3’s 5.7-inch screen with slightly retro bezels and the ethical option is missing a few camera features like a depth sensor and OIS. If you want cutting edge, this won’t even get a look-in. From the point of view of someone who just needs a decent screen, decent camera and decent power from an Android (9 Pie) phone, though, Fairphone may well have caught up.
That’s not just in specs but in price too. The Moto G7 was £239 at launch in February but the price has now dropped down to around £220 while the Fairphone costs €450 (£408). What’s important about that? This means that the premium for choosing an ethical phone has now dropped to below £200. The years-long plateau in major smartphone innovation hasn’t hurt its chances either. “The latest tech specs don’t make a phone stand out as much as they used to do,” says Fairphone CEO Eva Gouwens. “That might be one of the reasons that we were able to catch up.”
The one element that doesn’t feel like it’s quite caught up is the design. The Fairphone 3 is not blocky and ugly, like its predecessor. If we rewind say, five years we’d say this is a smart-looking and well made device but next to the current crop, it does look retro.
The form factor is, of course, tied up to the repairability – slim, all-metal unibody phones are not built for easy DIY repairs, quite the opposite. “One of the things we talked about between Fairphone 2 and 3 is that it’s not a negative thing to add screws for repairs,” says Gouwens. “Portability and robustness are super important.”
So how ethical is ethical? The three core tenets of Fairphone remain: working to improve factory conditions, ethical supply chains and mining and device repairability.
Building on its Worker Welfare Fund, Fairphone is in the process of rolling out bonus pay to to Taiwan-based Arima’s factory of 500 workers in Shouzu, China where Fairphone’s devices are manufactured. The bonus will be paid to bring wages up to living wages and while initially it was going to be paid only to workers on the Fairphone line, after discussions with workers and management “they indicated that it’s a better idea to spread the bonus over the whole company to avoid tensions.” There’s also a second bonus fund, which takes the form of a “higher product price to Arima” for making progress on working conditions and worker satisfaction.
As for ethical mining, Fairphone is concentrating and continuing its efforts into responsible sourcing and recycling in eight materials including tin, tungsten, cobalt, lithium, gold, copper and plastics. Some of its initiatives are more mature than others. Fairphone has a “roadmap” for lithium for 2020 but right now, there’s not a lot to talk about.
On cobalt (used in smartphone battery energy transfer), meanwhile, it is researching and developing a local improvement plan with its partner around mines in the DRC and hopes to integrate more ethical cobalt into the Fairphone 3 supply chain at some point in the future. Here the focus isn’t on a ‘living wage’ but health and safety improvements and better working conditions for artisanal miners with the aim that they are able “to ask for more money for the materials.”
Its initiatives in Fairtrade gold are further developed; it’s working to increase the percentage of gold in its products that is certified and ongoing projects include identifying and supporting mines in Uganda which are not yet certified but “walking that trajectory towards being certified”. Child labour in mining is still one of the most pressing issues in both Uganda and the DRC.
On the repairability front, Fairphone expects the lifecycle of the Fairphone 3 to be up to five years so it expects users to trade in the battery, for instance, two or three times during that half decade. (This does put the 2019 specs into perspective, slightly – it remains to be seen how much we’d recommend this device in say, 2024).
The headline estimate in terms of eco credentials is that buying this phone and keeping it for five years could save 30 per cent in CO2 emissions versus regular phone upgrade habits. That’s based on a Life Cycle Assessment of the Fairphone 2 and a Fairphone rep told us that this is actually a “pretty pessimistic scenario with lots of repairs so the actual savings may well be much higher.”
Perhaps the biggest impact Fairphone could have is to influence the wider industry and Gouwens is bullish on their prospects here, despite much talk and little action – Google’s recent pledge to use recyclable materials in all its hardware by 2022 is worth applauding but far from the cradle to cradle approach Fairphone is building out.
She is coy on naming names but on cobalt, in particular, Fairphone’s CEO hints at work with big partners in consumer electronics. It is working with the likes of Royal Philips elsewhere on Fairtrade gold. “Our mission is still to motivate the industry to act more responsibly, in part by unravelling the supply chain.”
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