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Fairphone Forges Ahead with Longer-Lasting, E-waste-Neutral Smartphone

Still striving to greatly improve the sustainability of the industry, Fairphone’s new model embodies the company’s commitment to better materials, better mining practices and a longer product lifecycle.

Our obsession with smartphones continues to carry a heavy toll on both people and planet. Back in 2016, a Greenpeace survey found strong consumer demand for more ethical and sustainable smartphones that are made to last, don’t contain hazardous chemicals, and are easily repairable or recyclable. Five years on, it’s fair to say that limited progress has been made on this front.

There continues to be a lack of supply chain transparency when it comes to the use of conflict minerals in these devices; and slow phase-out of toxic chemicals such as PVC, phthalates and brominated flame retardants used in production processes. While some manufacturers have made great strides in recent years to address these issues, overall industry progress remains somewhat mixed.

Add to this frequent upgrade cycles during the use phase (users keep their phones for an average of two to three years before buying a new one), poor recycling rates and a lack of built-in repairability in many models, and it’s easy to see why the smartphone system remains a broken one. And while the growth of refurbished electronics is an encouraging trend, more needs to be done to make durable, repairable phones more accessible — and appealing — to the average user.

Since its inception in 2013, Fairphone has been at the forefront of challenging the industry to take a more responsible approach. Its latest launch — the Fairphone 4 5G, launched yesterday — is designed to compete with the best smartphone technology out there while offering a highly sustainable option for users.

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It comes with a five-year warranty, which the company says goes beyond industry standards, and an ‘electronic-waste-neutral’ handset. This means that for every Fairphone 4 sold, the company pledges to recycle one phone or an equal amount of small electronic waste. Alternatively, Fairphone says it will take back and refurbish at least one other phone to prevent the production of a new one. The company has relaunched its recycling and reuse programme to ensure it can achieve this, and will source devices from European take-back schemes or from countries without formal recycling infrastructure.

Speaking at the launch, CEO Eva Gouwens said that business models which encourage users to regularly upgrade their devices need to change, given the pressures these models are placing on resources, not to mention their carbon and e-waste footprint.

“We believe that these rapid lifecycles are the main reason for many of the malpractices we see in this industry. That is the area that needs most improvement,” she said. “Keeping the device in use for longer, I really see that as a key area — if we are able to achieve that, I believe other aspects of the industry will become more sustainable, as well.”

Gouwens admitted that there wasn’t currently a solid business case behind thoroughly recycling smartphones. “There is a big opportunity there,” she emphasized, but pointed out that it was only part of the solution and that more responsible mining practices needed to scale. “We need virgin mining for certain materials. We can’t just look away and say ‘no, we use recycled’ — we need to improve the conditions there, as well.”

According to Monique Lempers, Fairphone’s impact innovation director, electronics manufacturers need to start taking an impact-based, not risk-based, approach to fair mining. “We source and invest in those mines where we can generate the most impact and drive opportunities for change,” she said.

In its supply chain, Fairphone has expanded its list of responsibly sourced materials, adding a further six to focus on 14 in total. It has a target to source 70 percent of these 14 materials responsibly by 2023. Materials include Lithium, Neodymium, Tin, Colbalt, Gold, Tungsten, Zinc, Silver, Copper and plastic. Around 56 percent of the company’s original eight focus materials were fairly sourced in 2020, up from 32 percent in 2019.

The latest Fairphone 4 includes Fairtrade-certified gold; aluminum from Aluminum Stewardship Initiative Performance Standard-certified vendors; and fair tungsten from Rwanda; as well as recycled tin, rare earth minerals and plastics. It also features a back cover made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled polycarbonate, which the company says is an industry first.

Asked when Fairphone might be able to produce a ‘climate-neutral’ smartphone, Lempers said that lifecycle assessment studies of the Fairphone 4 were currently being undertaken and that the company would be in a position to report on this later in the year.

“Overall, it’s good to say that one of our key impact areas is driving a longer lifetime of the phone. We think the carbon footprint is largest in our production phase; we know that from our LCAs of former devices,” she said. “Therefore, we’ve set ourselves even higher ambitions to increase the lifetime of the Fairphone 4; and to monitor the actual use, but also the predictive use, of the Fairphone 4 in the years to come.”

There are still challenges to overcome in recycling smartphones, even with modular models such as Fairphone’s that are easier to disassemble. The company’s 2020 impact report highlights the finding of its own recyclability studies, which found that only 30 percent of the materials used in the earlier Fairphone 2 model could be recovered, even if the most optimal recycling routes are applied. However, this improves to over 50 percent in the Fairphone 3. Lempers says that a recyclability study has yet to be carried out for the Fairphone 4.

Ultimately, recycling alone will not be able to meet future demand for all the materials that go into smartphones, which is why Fairphone advocates a more holistic approach focusing on four impact areas — longevity, circularity, sourcing fair materials and putting people first. While the company actively encourages others to adopt its methods and collaborate, it will doubtless be consumer demand for more ethical electronics that drives the biggest change.

Asked if people are beginning to prioritize ethics over aesthetics and performance when it comes to buying a smartphone, Fairphone’s communications manager, Ioiana Pires Luncheon, told Sustainable Brands™: “I think it’s slowly making inroads in electronics. If you look at the fashion industry, it’s really ahead when it comes to sustainability — with many brands now trying to do better in that area.

“I think it’s taken time for that to happen; I don’t think consumers really want to compromise when it comes to performance. A big part of launching the Fairphone 4 was to create a device for people who don’t want to compromise. It’s about providing the market with a premium, sustainable smartphone option.”

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