What Is the iPhone?

Ethical Smartphone Startup Fairphone Wants Apple to Steal Its Idea

In many ways, Fairphone is more of an advocacy group than a tech company.

Kaleigh Rogers

Kaleigh Rogers

Image: Fairphone

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along.

Who made your iPhone? Chances are, simply considering that question made you squirm a bit. Many people have at least a peripheral understanding that our electronics, including smart phones, involve some shady, unethical business.

From rare, toxic minerals mined by children's hands in conflict zones to sweatshop factories where young workers are poisoned through inhumane conditions, the stories that have been revealed over the years are horrifying. At one notorious Apple supplier, the company installed "suicide nets" to try to prevent workers from flinging themselves off the building in desperation.

But a smartphone has become a basic necessity, and Apple is far from the only tech giant complicit in the dirty and inhumane supply chain. Is it possible to make a truly ethical smartphone? Back in 2013, a startup called Fairphone raised this very question.

Fairphone started as a campaign to demonstrate to big tech companies that it was possible to have a more transparent, fair, and ethical manufacturing process. But after widespread support, the group decided to actually try and make such a phone themselves.

The V2 Fairphone. Image: Fairphone

This past year, the second version of Fairphone was shipped in Europe. The group has sold 130,000 phones, 70,000 of which are the newest version, according to Fabian Hühne, a press officer at Fairphone.

"We're still concentrating on the European market for now," Hühne told me. "The US and North America are interesting markets for us, but it's too early to talk about when we'll launch there. We would have to make modifications to the device to be able to sell it in a different market."

Fairphone has been focusing on many elements to make what it considers a more ethical phone. A smartphone uses about 40 different minerals in its manufacturing, and to meet the company's high standards, each any every element must be traced to ensure it's conflict-free and that workers are treated fairly.

It started by sourcing certified-conflict-free mines (but without abandoning conflict zones, where locals often depend on the mining industry) to get tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold—some of the minerals most notorious for funding conflict in the Congo.

Workers at a conflict-free Fairphone tungsten mine in Rwanda. Image: Fairphone

But it still isn't truly "fair" yet, Hühne told me. Fairphone has a list of 10 minerals used in its phone that the company is looking at next, but hasn't yet certified.

Part of the ethical dream is making the Fairphone modular, meaning users can replace parts of the phone to upgrade or repair it, which is denied to users of most modern smartphones. Hühne told me the company believes this is ethical for the consumer because it reduces e-waste and encourages people to keep their devices longer, rather than constantly upgrading and throwing out mountains of e-waste.

It's all very idyllic-sounding, but with such a small company and slow growth rate, we're nowhere near getting our hands on an ethical smartphone in the US. So why haven't tech companies here stepped up, especially as more and more reports surface of just how horrible the supply chain is for people, the planet, and the future?

"Brands aren't going to respond and try to improve things unless there's pressure coming from their stakeholders, customers, and shareholders," said Heather White, a Network Fellow at Harvard University's Edmond Safra Center for Ethics and the director of a documentary about labor in the electronics sector. "It costs money, it takes resources to create oversight, and that doesn't contribute to the bottom line. The brands just don't want to spend the money."

But Hühne said the company's goal is to continue growing and to serve as an example. Ideally, Fairphone would love for the tech giants to steal their concept and make an ethical smartphone, too.

"I don't think we're competing," Hühne said. "The idea is not to dominate the market. The idea really is to inspire change. That's the goal."

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