Fairphone has just announced the Fairphone 3, which promises to be a fairly sourced, recyclable, repairable, and sustainable smartphone among a crowded field of ecologically destructive products.
The costs of a global electronics industry centered around gadgets that are planned to go obsolete every few years are already high. In China, where the majority of rare earth minerals in consumer products are mined, intensive resource extraction and industrial production have created “cancer villages” that dot the polluted landscape. Working conditions in these mines and factories regularly drive workers to suicide. But even if the ecological costs and human rights issues were resolved, there is still the question of whether sustainable development can create supply chains in the face of growing demand and waste.
In a press release announcing its new phone’s availability for presale, Fairphone tried to lay out its vision for a sustainable smartphone alternative. Most devices are designed to go obsolete within a certain time period, while Fairphone is intended to be long-lived thanks to longer-lasting parts and its modular design, which makes repairs and replacements easier. Fairphone also strives to use "conflict-free" minerals sourced from mines or suppliers that are not fueled by war or exploitation. The phone company is also working with Arima, a Taiwanese assembly partner, in a bid to improve working conditions by paying bonuses for meeting worker rights goals as opposed to the industry norm (punishing companies for failing to meet production schedules and shedding worker rights).
Fairphone’s new handset, if adopted more widely, would be a huge step in the right direction. At the moment, however, Fairphone is still a niche product. In 2017, Fairphone sold close to 30,000 phones through its online store and through its business-to-business program—that’s 0.00008 percent of the 361 million smartphones sold in Europe that year. If nothing else, Fairphone is an ambitious project within an industry that structurally demands the exploitation of resources, workers, and consumers alike.