You might not even have heard of them, but the Dutch Fairphone launched on August 27 its third model of what it claims to be the world’s most sustainable and ethical phone: the Fairphone 3.
With 175,000 phones sold since its start in 2013, Fairphone is just a tiny little phone manufacturer compared to giants such as Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi. So, what makes them so important and how do they beat the rest of the industry?
Fairphone is not your ordinary phone manufacturer and the Fairphone 3 is not an ordinary phone. Just looking at its specs, it is easy to qualify the Fairphone 3 as an inferior phone for its price. It costs €450 ($500) and for that price you get a phone that, compared to similar-price range models, has a screen that is too small, insufficient memory capacity, limited chipset, a single camera—and it doesn’t look particularly sleek either.
But where Fairphone beats its competitors is in its sustainability and ethics. The phone is built in a modular way, making it easy to repair and replace components, thereby extending the phone’s lifespan. Furthermore, materials are sourced from sustainable sources. It is, for example, the first phone manufacturer using Fairtrade certified gold. And Fairphone takes precious care of the rights, wages and working conditions of workers in their Chinese factories. This makes it the most sustainable and ethical phone manufacturer on the planet.
Making an impact
Of course, being the tiny company they are, Fairphone will never outcompete their giant competitors in terms of sales. But that’s not their aim. The company was founded to raise awareness for sustainable and ethical manufacturing in the smartphone industry and to set an example. This, so they hope, will help others follow, thereby making the entire industry more sustainable.
I am optimistic they achieve this goal because the time is right. Not only because climate awareness is higher than ever before and interest in sustainable products is raising, both amongst consumers and producers. But also because the smartphone industry is mature and saturated. Despite the incremental innovations introduced every year—better screens, better cameras, faster chipsets, and so on—the smartphone is a finished product.
But the major innovation that can still be made, is making it more sustainable. This makes what Fairphone is doing the next logical step. Moving up Maslow’s needs pyramid, the average smartphone fulfils all basic needs we might think of and the time it helped raising status are gone. Once those needs have been fulfilled, what is left is people’s need to make a difference, to matter to others and the world. And that is what the Fairphone helps doing.
Fairphone’s Achilles’ heel
For full disclosure, I don’t own a Fairphone, and neither do I plan to buy one. On one hand this is because it is even more sustainable to keep my current phone instead of buying a new one—even if it is the Fairphone. But the main reason is that I don’t believe the modular design Fairphone is using is at the end the right route for mobile phones to go in the mass consumer market. Producing a modular phone that customers can disassemble may work for a niche, but I don’t see it working for the large majority of consumers.
It works if people are willing to keep their phone for a longer time, repair it and upgrade it. But that requires a dramatic change in consumer behavior. Driven by a quest for novelty, consumers are used to buy products and replace them quickly as soon as new models are introduced. This applies to smartphones, but also to shoes, chairs, lamps or any other non-basic product.
Circular business as alternative approach
I don’t see consumer behavior changing quickly. Therefore, the alternative and better solution may be creating a circular business. Following Fairphone’s example, sourcing is definitely something to work on to make phones more sustainable and ethical. That is a no-brainer. But on top of that, designing and manufacturing the phones for full reuse and creating a circular supply chain and business model is what can make the real difference. It means that, from the earliest design phase on, it is made clear how each component and material is going to be reused afterwards and then arranging a supply chain that can realize this reuse in a cost-efficient way so that no resources are wasted.
The main advantage of this circular approach is that it doesn’t require the same difficult tradeoffs as in a modular design, nor does it require a change in consumer behavior. Adding modularity in such a way that consumers can repair phones themselves, leads to a bulkier product. The Fairphone 2 made this clear. Things have improved with the Fairphone 3, but nevertheless, it does make the phone larger and more expensive.
When designed for circularity, such tradeoffs are not necessary. Making them industrially deconstructable is sufficient. And the only change for consumers is that they return their phone after their contract terminates for a partial refund, which is hardly a change for them. This makes the circular route a more natural one than the modular route. Challenging, but more natural and promising.
What makes Fairphone remarkable is not simply the way they make their phones, but the example they set in the industry, thereby inspiring others to create more sustainable and ethical phones.
I am optimistic that they will achieve their goal to make the smartphone industry more sustainable, because the time is right. And it is not only right in the smartphone industry, but also in related industries such as the laptop and tablet industry. Like smartphones, these are mature products for which we currently only see incremental innovations. Let Fairphone be an inspiration for those industries too.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty