Dave of Lowimpact.org interviews Lucy Neal, Dave Mauger and Emily Oliver of Transition Town Tooting about Fairphone. Lowimpact.org is constantly looking for sustainable ways to provide the basic necessities of life, and especially non-corporate, sustainable ways. When it comes to food, housing, energy, clothes, computer software and many other things, there are various options, from producing your own or using small companies to the co-operative, community-owned or open source routes. But a phone? Surely that needs a giant multinational to manufacture and distribute? I’d heard of Fairphone, but I’d never really looked into it. I arranged to meet and interview three members of Transition Town Tooting who I knew owned Fairphones, so that I could blog about their experiences, have a few Christmas drinks with nice people and promote my local Transition group at the same time.
Lowimpact.org: first, the obvious question – what makes Fairphone different?
Lucy: it’s the first phone company that guarantees ethically-sourced materials – or at least to the best of their ability. They’ve tried hard to audit the supply of materials to minimise environmental damage and maximise the welfare of workers. Then there’s the production process itself – which can’t be made perfect of course (i.e. with zero environmental footprint), but they’re constantly trying to improve.
LI: what made you decide to get a Fairphone?
Dave M: you can learn to repair it yourself – in fact it’s encouraged. It makes sense – if you got a puncture on your bike, you wouldn’t throw it away and get a new bike, would you? Other companies go down the ‘built-in obsolescence’ route – you know, another year, another phone, even though there’s practically nothing new any more – and if something goes, it’s time for a new phone. With a Fairphone, you can replace components – for example, if the camera dies, they’ll send you a new one – with online instructions on how to install it.
Emily: unfortunately, a lot of the minerals required for a smart phone (for example, the ability to slide things around on the screen) are extremely rare and difficult to extract without a lot of environmental damage. Much of the extraction takes place in the Congo, and there’s a film that exposes the kind of problems that it causes. It’s called Unwatchable, and it really influenced me.
LI: where are the phones made?
Lucy: the phones are made in China, and the company is working with the factories to ensure that they’re on a ‘fair employment trajectory’ – i.e. to stay competitive, they can’t pay Western wages or have Western health & safety measures in place, but they’re moving in the right direction. Wages in the West ensure that companies manufacturing here would price themselves out of the market.
Dave M: customers can track this trajectory, and monitor the manufacturing process from start to finish. We can become part of the project, if you like.
LI: how much do they cost?
Emily: £250 – you can get them online, from their website. They come out in batches, and demand is high, so you might have to wait a bit. It’s a one-off payment, and my contract is £10 per month.
Dave M: I’ve got a £30 per month deal, with a free phone as part of the contract.
LI: and what do you like about it?
Dave M: I like the fact that they take two SIM cards – so you don’t have to have a work phone and a private phone.
Emily: the staff are very friendly, and there is a good online service to help you solve any problems. I like the fact that they’ve put the effort in to give customers a transparent supply line, but still stayed commercially viable. I want to support them. And I really don’t want it in the back of my mind that people might have been raped or killed so that I can have a smart phone.
Lucy: I feel like a pioneer – there’s a feel-good factor, and it’s (dare I say it?) cool. For techies it’s great too, as you can ‘hack’ into it to customise it to suit your needs. In fact, the more open structure encourages just that.
LI: Any problems?
Emily: yes – my phone was from the first batch, and sometimes I had difficulty in hearing people. Also, it sometimes started to vibrate randomly, which was a bit disconcerting. I did a data wipe, and it’s fine now.
Lucy: I was first batch too, and mine decided to switch itself off whenever it felt like it – sometimes in the middle of a conversation. It also decided to swtich itself on whenever it felt like it too – which made me nervous when I was at the theatre.
Dave M: mine was from the second batch, and I didn’t have any of those problems. I think everyone has ‘stories’ about their phone, wherever they get it from, and I think that maybe the first batch had problems because they were keen to get them out, and they hadn’t been tested enough. The second batch seem to be much better.
In an interview on Fairphone’s website, the founder, Bas van Abel, explains that he doesn’t want to grow too quickly, because that will put pressure on to cut corners when it comes to sourcing materials and factory conditions. Fair enough, but he also makes it clear that they won’t be able to fund the manufacture and distribution of each new batch of phones from the sales of the previous batch. He doesn’t explain why this is the case, but he does promise that they will only be open to ‘social impact investors’ (socially- and environmentally-conscious investors). The problem is that with a for-profit model and shareholders, I don’t see any way that he can guarantee that in perpetuity.
I can’t help being reminded of the fanfare surrounding the launch of the Body Shop, Green & Blacks and Ben & Jerry’s. Those companies were supposed to be the vanguard of a whole new way of doing business, but they’re now owned by L’Oreal, Cadbury’s and Unilever respectively. If anything really threatens corporate power, they’ll crush it, or more likely, buy it – as the socially-conscious customers of the Co-op Bank have recently discovered.
Van Abel is hamstrung by the difficulties involved in raising capital for not-for-profits – but it is possible. Scott-Bader is a co-operative, and therefore has no shareholders, and yet it employs 600 people, and has a turnover of £150 million. This is of course dwarfed by the 75,000 employees and £9 billion turnover of the John Lewis Partnership, which has no external shareholders that they are legally obliged to service at the expense of all else; or the 100,000 employees, 8 million members and £10 billion turnover of the Co-operative Group.
Any company that has external shareholders to service is still part of the standard, growth-obsessed capitalist economy that’s causing the environmental and social problems in the first place. A fundamental principle of his approach is that capitalism can be ‘greened’, but because at its heart there is a stock market from which investors want more back than they invested (obviously), plus fractional reserve banking and compound interest, I don’t believe it can. It can’t stop growing and is therefore inherently unsustainable.
I do believe that the people at Fairphone are genuine though, and if they can make headway into preventing environmental damage and the killing of children, it has to be a very, very good thing. Plus when it comes to a service provider, you can go 100% non-corporate, with the Phone Co-op, the only customer-owned service provider in the UK.
You can read more about the history and ethos of Fairphone on their website, but I’ll leave the last word to Lucy:
‘I think that the ease of communication nowadays is a great thing – but I don’t think that it should be achieved via the deaths of children. There seems to be a huge ‘disconnect’ problem, so that people fail to understand the consequences of their actions. If we want to see ourselves as responsible and accountable, we have to reconnect with the systems and processes that provide us with the things that we consume. Owning a Fairphone helps me to feel better connected to the kind of world I’d like to see.’
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
Crockett Cresswell December 31st, 2014
Great in principle and I hope the Fairphone does succeed.
Is there an intention to move to an ethical operating system, or continue to use Google’s proprietary version of android instead of FirefoxOS, Cyanogen or Android Open Source Project?
I appreciate that alternatives to Google android are only just coming to the point where they are a realistic choice, but for privacy and security your phone will need to change OS before I move away from Apple. I would like to buy a Fairphone but not with the current tracking, privacy and malware issues with all Google android devices.