The Dutch founders of Fairphone wanted to create a product that would contribute to a fairer economy based on social and environmental values.
Now with 60,000 phones sold, they also want to open up supply chains and change production processes while improving worker welfare.
The idea began back in 2009 when good friends, Bas van Abel (Creative Director at Waag Society) and Peter van der Mark (CEO of Schrijf-Schrijf) began working with Gerno Kwaks from ActionAid (Netherlands) to design a campaign against conflict minerals.
They were working on a conflict mineral awareness campaign and then decided that making their own mobile phones would be an effective way of demonstrating how manufacturers can develop profitable products while reducing environmental impact; ensuring social welfare of workers involved in all aspects of the production from mines to retail outlet.
Agreeing that a smartphone is the best way to tell the story, they decide on the name FairPhone (the capital ‘P’ would later be dropped).
The partners decided to focus on five core action areas: Mining, Design, Manufacturing, Lifecycle and Social Entrepreneurship. The company partners with research groups, NGOs, civil society, media, and businesses to achieve its goals.
Fairphone’s roots were in raising awareness of conflict minerals and every smartphone contains about 40 different minerals, including tantalum, tungsten, copper, iron, nickel, aluminum, tin, silver, chromium, gold and palladium, each performing a different role that is essential to the functionality of the phone. For example, tungsten is used in the vibration mechanism and tantalum is often used to make the capacitors smaller.
All these minerals and metals originally enter the supply chain from the mining sector – a challenging industry in terms of sustainability. From pollution and extremely dangerous working conditions to child labour, a number of mining-related practices desperately require improvement. In recent years, in part due to the Dodd Frank Act in the US, conflict minerals have taken centre stage in the quest to improving accountability in the mining sector.
Conflict minerals fund rebel groups, contributing to political and economic instability while neglecting workers’ rights, safety and their ability to earn fair wages.
Passed in 2010, the Dodd Frank Act addresses tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold (3Ts and G) sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and surrounding high-risk areas. Fairphone, focuses on sourcing conflict-free minerals, and works directly in the conflict zone: the DRC.
While conflict-free minerals are certainly available from other countries, Fairphone’s goal is to work directly to contribute to alternatives to current mining practices, empowering workers and improving the livelihoods of the local population.
Around the world, Fairphone has engaged in recycling of phones; 75,000 were saved from a landfill in Ghana. There is also a Worker Welfare Fund established with the company’s production partner, Guohong, in China.
More recently, in December 2015, the company embarked on a program of the 3D-printing of accessories at 35 printing hubs around the world.
The idea is that 3D-printing is an innovative way of producing locally, so that shipping is reduced to a minimum; on-demand, with no need for storage; and adding material instead of removing material during production, so no material waste is created.
As the 3D-printing industry develops possibilities further, the company sees huge environmental benefits reducing manufacturing time and the carbon footprint associated with overproduction.