By Kim Robson
When I first heard of a Fair Trade Phone, I thought, “Whaaat?” But when you think about it, fair trade technology makes a lot of sense. Mobile phones contain more than thirty different kinds of mined minerals and precious metals, including copper, cobalt, gold, and tin. Some of these minerals also come from areas plagued by violent internal conflicts. Tin, for instance, comes from the Eastern Congo. Frequently, these natural resources are being peddled by ruthless warlords, contributing to poverty, disease, environmental and actual rape, and horrifyingly brutal political conflict. These minerals are therefore referred to as “conflict minerals.”
A new company called FairPhone is developing the world’s first conflict-free cell phone, manufactured without damage to humans or nature. The supply chain for electronic materials is long and complicated, and furious competition simply fuels the demand. The issues go far beyond simply mining — from poor working conditions in factories from Mexico to China to business models that create “designed for the dump” products with short lifespans. Designing, creating, and promoting fair trade electronics can be a force of change, challenging current consumption trends that fail to take into account the environmental and social costs of production.
Building a fair phone is a design challenge. Numerous stakeholders must cooperate and collaborate, sharing knowledge, expertise, and industry networks. FairPhone is fostering dialogue between policy makers, consumers, designers, and marketers. While we can’t change the system overnight, we can raise awareness little by little and take steps needed to change the system that produces our phones.
In this way, the phone becomes a political object with which we strive to balance the interests of all involved and arrive at a shared value. The FairPhone offers an alternative to those who want to help change the status quo in the electronics manufacturing industry without being beholden to Wall Street.
Toward this end, FairPhone has contracted with numerous outside agencies. IDH and LaborVoicesensure that factory working conditions are clean, safe, and healthy, and that workers’ pay is fair. Their work with the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative, which creates demand for conflict-free tin from the Congo, helps improve prospects for economic development and regional stability. The Initiative has successfully introduced a tightly controlled conflict-free supply chain outside the control of armed groups. Solutions For Hope has helped bring conflict-free tantalum to the table.
Finally, FairPhone’s work with Closing The Loop helps prevent electronic waste and those same precious metals from ending up in landfills in Africa and Asia. 1.5 billion mobile phones are manufactured every year, and another 700 million phones end up in the trash. At best, reuse and recycling of old phones barely reaches 25% in developed countries. One ton of discarded mobile phones contains more gold than one ton of gold ore! Current recycling techniques make it possible to extract the gold and other precious metals like palladium, silver and copper.
Initial sales and production are scheduled for the third quarter of 2013, and initially the smart phones will be sold exclusively through FairPhone’s website. Pricing will be competitive with non-fair phones. The first run will include only 5,000 units, so get your name on the mailing list today!