Want a smartphone that doesn’t cost the earth? Here's how Fairphone tackles e-waste, environmental damage and exploitation.
Mobile phones are set to outnumber human beings two to one in the next couple of years, reaching a “stunning” 18 billion by 2025.
Of the roughly 1.5 billion phones sold each year, only 20 per cent are recycled.
Most of us are aware of this growing mountain of e-waste and its inverse: the mines where human rights are buried in pursuit of the minerals we need for our smartphones.
But with phones at the centre of our lives, in our hands most of the day, it’s convenient to ignore the harm they do. The ills of the mobile phone industry can feel like just another way that our everyday consumption causes harm from afar - like our appetite for avocados, or penchant for fast fashion.
But there is another way. Even in this globalised system there is space to be an ethical consumer, and there’s one phone that is leagues ahead by environmental and social metrics: the Fairphone.
Launched by a Dutch social enterprise in 2012, the phone’s unique selling point is that its parts are accessible - and therefore fixable - by screwdriver.
Fairphone has also taken great care to source all its material parts as consciously as possible.
With EU Green Week shedding a light on the circular economy, we sat down with Fairphone’s Impact Innovation director Monique Lempers to get an inside perspective on the industry.
What is the climate impact of our phones’ short life spans?
“Unfortunately the average time that a user currently uses their phone for is only between two and three years,” says Lempers.
Given that the biggest chunk of CO2 emissions from a phone are released at the production stage - around 75 per cent - this fleeting ownership has an “immense impact” she says.
Fairphone is striving to stretch the lifetime of a phone over five years, so double the average lifespan currently.
It is doing this by making its modular device easily repairable. “We have YouTube videos where children repair it in two minutes,” she says. “So it should really be possible for anyone.” New components can also be swapped in, like an upgraded camera module.
In 2022, Fairphone estimates that it avoided 999 tonnes of CO2, largely due to the extended useful lifetime of its phones. That’s the emissions that 650 Dutch households would create in a year through electricity consumption. Or more than 500 tonnes of coal burnt.
How can you make your phone last longer?
Lemper’s first piece of advice is to resist the seduction of adverts. Easier said than done when the shiniest new iPhone looms over us on billboards offering ever-better specs. But, she says, “often the technical difference is not that big - especially over the last years the phones have really come to be quite comparable.”
Repairing damaged phones may be less expensive than you think, she adds, and can make your handset as good as new. And if your phone isn’t functioning so well anymore, updating the software or trying a new battery are some more sustainable steps before buying a new one.
“Then of course, it is really key to keep and guard your phone well,” she says. “There’s a lot of precious metals in there and a lot of work has gone into making your phone.”
So it’s important that we cherish it like the valuable product it is.
What is the dark side of the phone industry?
More on these valuable products: around 60 different minerals and metals flow into our smartphones from all over the world, making up various components. Gold, for example, is in over 20 different components in a phone.
Lemper sees two “really dark truths” to the smartphone industry. One is that it is forgetting about the millions of people who are extracting these elements, often in extremely hazardous conditions.
“We need to take responsibility as an industry,” she says. “This is why Fairphone was set up - to open up the supply chain and to uncover those dark truths behind our supply chain and to then also come with solutions and show that you can do it differently.”
The company identified 14 ‘focus materials’ that it either seeks to get in a recycled form, or source from fair mines.
Fairphone doesn’t bypass countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] where conflict minerals are rife. “We think that the extraction of minerals can also really help the poor communities there to benefit from these mineral demands,” Lemper explains.
But they make sure that the cobalt, for example, comes from mines that support development and don’t contribute to armed conflict.
The majority of production takes place in China, where most phone components are made. Again, Fairphone thinks it can have a “positive impact” in the country, using its buying power to improve workers’ conditions on the assembly line.
The other dark truth is that e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream worldwide, says Lemper. This is because we’re used to disposing of our electronics before they’ve been optimally used.
Moreover the e-waste is not well processed. Of the 20 per cent that is collected, we’re only able to extract somewhere between 30 to 50 per cent of the minerals and the rest is burned or sent to landfills.
Fairphone is trying to inspire the industry to do better. Its latest model, the Fairphone 4, is ‘electronic waste neutral’ - meaning that for every phone sold, another end-of-life phone or equivalent e-waste is either reused or recycled through its efforts.
How can we make the phone industry circular?
The company has a take-back programme for old phone parts - currently only available in Germany and France, but soon to be expanded in other countries.
And it is continuing to pioneer in the smartphone space; piloting a new service where Fairphones can be leased instead of sold for a monthly fee.
The ‘Fairphone Easy’ approach incentivises consumers to hold onto the phone for longer, by reducing this fee over time. By making the company the phone’s owner, it also rewards it for stretching the phone’s lifetime with sustainable parts.
Lemper describes it as “an ideal circular business model.”
Watch the video above to learn more about the impact of mobile phones.