Fairphone answers the call for more ethical smartphones

The Dutch company started in 2010 by raising awareness of the links between electronics and minerals mined in conflict zones, then decided to make an ethical smartphone of its own.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters/File
Gold miners form a human chain while digging an open pit at the Chudja mine in north-eastern Congo, home to the world's biggest reserves of cobalt.

Few brands would risk showing the reality of the complex supply chains behind their products. But Fairphone has staked its reputation on being transparent in an industry often accused of prolonging wars, harming the environment, and using child labor.

The Dutch company started off in 2010 raising awareness about the links between electronics and minerals mined in conflict zones, before deciding it would make a greater impact by producing ethical smartphones of its own.

"We've been able to show there's a huge demand, there's an increasing demand for ethical products in the consumer sphere," Bas van Abel, Fairphone founder and chief executive, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Fairphone has sold 60,000 handsets so far – 25,000 of them snapped up in a crowdfunding exercise before the firm had made a single phone.

It has received more than 20,000 orders for Fairphone 2, due to be launched next month, and aims to sell 140,000 a year, van Abel said, though he admits the numbers are modest compared to the units being sold by the world's electronics giants.

Apple, for example, sold more than 13 million iPhone 6s and 6s Pluses in the first weekend they were available.

One of Fairphone's key milestones has been sourcing tin and tantalum, also known as coltan, from mines in Democratic Republic of Congo that have been verified as conflict-free by independent experts.

In total, about 40 minerals go into producing a mobile phone.

From the outset, the start-up, whose biggest customer base is in Germany, pledged to share its quest to build a longer-lasting phone using conflict-free metals with consumers.

So when a senior Congolese official asked Fairphone staff for a bribe to film some of the mines in Congo's mineral-rich Katanga Province in 2011, Fairphone's first impulse was to tweet about the incident.

"We went in with a very open, super-transparent approach," van Abel said of the trip to scope out Congo's mining sector.

After weighing up the options, payment was made, he said, and the team went on to film quarries where miners dig cobalt – used in cellphone batteries – by hand, as barefoot children and women with babies strapped to their backs washed rocks.

The footage is available on Fairphone's website, along with a map listing its global suppliers, a breakdown of the cost of Fairphone 2, which retails on average at 525 euros ($560), and other information about the company's operations.

The decision to source minerals from Congo was deliberate, van Abel said, a way of reinforcing the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act that obliges U.S.-listed companies to ensure their supply chain is free from Congolese conflict minerals.

The act specifically names tin, used as a solder in circuit boards; tantalum, which goes into components used to store electricity; tungsten, used in the vibrating function of mobile phones, and gold for coating wires.

"The thing we could have done is go to Australia and get our stuff there ... from mines where working conditions are supposedly perfectly fine," van Abel said.

But avoiding Congo would have undermined Fairphone's aim of contributing to economies that need investment most.

"The problem with that is you work with mines where there might be child labor. You work with mines where the working conditions are still not super duper," van Abel said, adding that Fairphone's long-term strategy is to raise the bar for labor standards "in a realistic way."

The company is still working on identifying fairer, more transparent sources of tungsten from Africa's Great Lakes region, and gold, which is hard to trace because so much of it is smuggled or controlled by government authorities.

Besides focusing on conflict-free minerals, Fairphone has offered insights to groups lobbying the European Union to enforce legislation giving electronic goods longer warranties.

It has introduced programs to tackle electronic waste in Ghana and improve workers' welfare at its factory in China.

"If you go into a policing mode and tell them all what to do, they'll just show you what you want to see," van Abel said. As a small company, Fairphone has to work hard to convince suppliers and factories to meet their ethical standards.

He said roughly eight out of Fairphone's 40 or so staff members work on strengthening social programs in the supply chain, and he acknowledges there is much more to do.

"We said we don't have to solve everything at once. We're going to do it step by step and while doing so, we'll take the consumer on that journey ... from the mines all the way to the manufacturing, the design, the recycling," van Abel said.

• Editing by Ros Russell. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org.

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