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Slowly But Surely, Fairphone Paving the Way to a More Ethical Electronics Industry

Latest Fairphone Impact Report reveals benefits of social and environmental programs; while LCA of the Fairphone 3 shows that using a smartphone for over 5 years can reduce CO2 emissions by about 40%.

Dutch social enterprise Fairphone has released its 2019 Impact Report, where it sets and measures benchmarks, sharing its efforts to reduce harm to the environment, improve the lives of everyone involved in making its phone and change the rules of doing business.

B Corp-certified Fairphone evolved from an awareness campaign about conflict minerals into a phone company in 2013, when it released the Fairphone 1. Since then, the tiny social enterprise has been chipping away at some of the smartphone industry’s dirtiest bits — and has been slowly and steadily setting a much higher bar for how phones and other electronics are produced: Fairphone achieved the first-ever Fairtrade-certified gold supply chain for consumer electronics, has received top reparability scores from iFixit for its products; and in 2016, the company achieved an industry first: fully transparent sourcing for all four of the conflict materials (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) used in its smartphones. The company is also leading the charge for ethical sourcing of cobalt, through a series of partnerships aimed at improving conditions in high-risk areas such as the DRC.

The new Impact Report highlights both Fairphone’s achievements and setbacks: In April 2019, Fairphone announced it had sold out of its Fairphone 2 model, launched in 2015 — which pointed to clear, ongoing demand for a more ethical phone. August 2019 saw the release of the Fairphone 3; but in the process of bringing it to market, the company admits it missed some of the targets it set for itself.

The Impact Report states that in 2019, 7,837 people have directly benefited from Fairphone’s social, environmental and economic interventions, up 32 percent from 2018 (5,296).

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Among the report's findings:

  • As of the launch of the Fairphone 3, an average of 32.75 percent of Fairphone’s eight focus materials were sustainably sourced, more than the 25.37 percent in both 2017 and 2018.
  • Since the launch of Fairphone 2, the company has sold a total of 120,000 phones. 55.12 percent of Fairphone 2s and Fairphone 3s sold were still in use in 2019 (active users are defined as those who are receiving software updates).
  • By the end of 2019, Fairphone achieved a 4.57 recycling return rate, up from 3.12 percent in 2018.
  • A life cycle assessment (LCA) of the Fairphone 3 found that the modular parts contributed to 2.3 percent of the emissions in production; a significant improvement over the Fairphone 2, in which they represented 12 percent of CO2 production emissions.

Increased smartphone longevity is one of Fairphone’s goals, but there is still some way to go before seven years of use is a reality. In addition to its repairability and modularity, key components of longevity include continued software, hardware and security support of phones — all of which Fairphone is working hard to address. Once these challenges are unlocked, it could allow users of both the Fairphone and other devices to keep their phones for much longer.

“2019 was the year of scaling up in our journey,” said Fairphone CEO Eva Gouwens. “We targeted a broader audience while retaining our loyal, sustainability-conscious community, we focused on producing a high-quality phone and onboarded operators across Europe. The progress we’ve made with the launch of the Fairphone 3 shows we’re going in the right direction in reaching our goals. 

“However, change doesn’t happen overnight, especially when we’re working to disrupt centuries-old production models and deeply ingrained industry and consumption habits. Sometimes we were too optimistic with the targets we set ourselves. But from implementing our recycling program to improving the modular design of our phone to encourage longevity, step by step we are moving closer to an economy where care for people and planet are a natural part of doing business.” 

Despite its higher price point and mixed reviews on its functionality, Fairphone 3 is a modular smartphone that’s made from ethically sourced materials, assembled by factory workers who are paid a living wage, and designed to allow for hardware updates and repairs to reduce the need to dispose of older phones — significant achievements that put Fairphone leaps ahead of any other smartphone on the market in terms of sustainability. But the question remains whether enough ethical consumers will put their money where their mouth is to enable Fairphone to influence the entire electronics industry to operate more fairly.