What’s inside your smartphone?
Where did the materials come from?
Who was harmed to make your phone?
These were some of the questions explored by Sean Ansett, chief sustainability officer of Fairphone, at this month’s public lecture at the University of Cumbria’s Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS).
Fairphone was launched in 2012 with the goal of creating the world’s first ethical smartphone. It shipped its first phones in January 2014 and aims for a second batch later this year.
And although the company still has a way to go to achieve its vision of creating a completely ethical phone, it is making huge progress in its objective of raising awareness of issues of ethics and sustainability in the supply chain.
Sean told guests at the University of Cumbria’s Ambleside campus: “We can’t make a completely fair phone – that doesn’t exist. That’s our vision, and we’re very clear about that.
“We don’t see Fairphone as a product – we see it as the start of a conversation.”
Sean spent 15 years working in the apparel and luxury industry, but decided to move on in frustration at the lack of progress made in securing better rights and conditions for workers.
Sean found the transformative business model he was looking for by joining Fairphone as chief sustainability officer.
Fairphone’s goal is to inspire other businesses to reflect on the story behind their product. Are they proud of the story? Do they own the story?
“We decided to make a product – but the product is really an artefact that allows us to tell a story about the supply chain”, Sean explained.
|The Fairphone was created to tell a story and start a|
conversation about the sustainability of the supply chain
Three vital materials found in every smartphone – tin, tantalum and tungsten – are often sourced in parts of the world where the sustainability of the supply chain is by no means certain.
Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the main sources of tin (used to make solder) and tantalum (used to make capacitors) – but the profit from the mining and sale of these minerals is frequently used by warlords to buy illegal weapons.
The issue of ‘conflict minerals’ has led to many electronics companies refusing to trade with DR Congo.
But rather than turn a blind eye to the country’s problems, Fairphone focussed its efforts on a small region, working with initiatives that ensure proceeds aren’t used to fund illegal arms.
Next, the company found a manufacturing partner in China that was open to partnering and transparency in the factory and with their workers.
Fairphone also launched a welfare fund for workers in the Chinese factory, and would like to expand its model to other production areas.
Fairphone’s work has obviously touched a nerve with a group of consumers who are becoming more aware of the impact of products that we all take for granted. The company’s initial goal was to sell 5,000 phones, but interest was so high that 25,000 units were produced and sold in the first batch. Another 38,000 people have signed up for the next production run.
The phone itself has been designed to offer flexibility to users – with a changeable battery, programmable operating system, and dual SIM facility.
There’s also an e-waste scheme to ensure that the precious materials within the phones can be reused.
Fairphone still has a long way to go to achieve its vision. But Sean hopes the story of the company’s ‘fairer phone’ will change the way we all think about the products we make and buy.
|IFLAS director Prof Jem Bendell welcomes|
Sean Ansett to the Ambleside campus
Professor Jem Bendell, the director of IFLAS, said: “Fairphone shows how tackling major social challenges can be an inspiration for entrepreneurs. It’s important to share the experience of such entrepreneurs with the executives on our courses at the Institute.”