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Will your next phone be Fair Trade?

Organic, cage-free or home-grown? We think about our purchasing ethics in many areas of daily life, but not often about technology. As with any product, though, we should think about the effects of our…

Choosing a mobile phone isn’t just about new features – it should also be about ethics. Fairphone

Organic, cage-free or home-grown? We think about our purchasing ethics in many areas of daily life, but not often about technology.

As with any product, though, we should think about the effects of our actions on workers and the environment. The idea of cage-free phones may sound silly, but for certain types of workers it’s a stark reality.

A mobile phone contains rare minerals that are often linked with violent conflicts. It is produced in difficult conditions by low-paid factory workers. (And if you’d like to play a game showing the production story of an iPhone, have a look at PhoneStory.)

A phone is also difficult to recycle safely at the end of its lifespan.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider

Technologies like mobile phones are often, by nature, small objects purchased infrequently. It’s difficult to put our ethics on the line when the object seems so meagre in size and when you don’t buy one that often.

And it often feels like we don’t have a lot of choice in the ethics of the phones we buy. All mobile phones are produced using the same materials, and some of these come from warzones. So choosing between Samsung and HTC can feel like choosing between a punch in the face and a kick in the guts.

Part of the problem is that we really feel like we have no choice but to buy a phone. Can we realistically expect to “go without” a phone, when our work, family and friends expect us to be available at all times? And when our carrier invites us to upgrade our phone for next to nothing every two years, what incentive do we have to slow down?

Introducing the Fairphone and Ara

The Fairphone is one solution that has already sold out on its first production run. The sole marketing strategy for the Fairphone has been a detailed examination of the production process.

Their website provides photos and other evidence of attempts at ethical sourcing. Using those, you can make up your own mind about the ethics.

The 25,000 devices sold represent a very small proportion of the roughly 1.7 billion phones sold last year. And the Fairphone is not available at all in some markets, including Australia and the United States (though if you have a friend in Europe you can have them pick one up for you).

Fairphone prototype (left) and an iPhone. Waag Society

Nonetheless, the sales figures so far suggest consumers are getting interested in finding ethical technologies.

Will this act as a trigger for other producers to become more ethical?

Motorola has announced “Ara”, their attempt to provide a less destructive alternative. The Ara phone is modular, meaning that people can use 3D printers from their homes to replace core technological components as needed and switch aesthetic parts such as the housing at leisure.

Motorola is bargaining that this will reduce the overall impact of our love of mobile phones.

But at the same time, Ara encourages us to throw away phones in dribs and drabs. Because the phone is based on the idea that we can replace any part at any time, it may still generate more waste over time than other gadgets.

As consumers raise concerns about the ethics of their devices, producers are gradually raising their production standards. Apple, Microsoft and Nokia have joined the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade, which is working to monitor, reform and document the extraction and trade of minerals such as coltan.

While the effects of the Alliance to date are unclear, it at least suggests that progress is possible.

The Fairphone and Ara are small examples, but hopefully they are the start of a growing change in the way we make and use mobile phones. They give us an opportunity to be more ethical in an area in which our choices are often limited.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Tanya Notley

    Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

    thanks for this Robbie and Luke. I am looking forward to seeing the Fairphone and hope the producers might enlighten us all on how difficult it was to follow the supply chains after their first release. I have found it extremely difficult to track tech supply chains - you too may have discovered this? It's great to see some excellent literature coming out on this though: maybe you have also read 'Greening the Media' by Maxwell and Miller. I really like that it reminds us the way environmental damage caused by new communication technologies is always hidden/ignored while they are still considered "new." FYI Last week I wrote about an Australian dimension to communication tech supply chains (including mobiles).

  2. Mike Jubow

    forestry nurseryman

    I really do feel like a dinosaur when the conversation comes around to mobile phones. I have often pondered if my wife and I are alone in the universe in just wanting a mobile phone that we can use as a phone. When was it that Telstra changed from CDMA? That's when we got our current phones and believe me, they are still working. I have actually taken three photos on mine. I'm impressed with myself! I see people of all walks of life studiously examining their so called smart phones at every opportunity and making sure that their latest tweet is up and can be seen, and wonder if there isn't something that could better ocupy their time.

    It seems that my friends are amused by the fact that if they send me a SMS and want a response, the best they can expect from me is that I will return with a phone call or if I have to go to SMS, they will not get anything more than a Y or N.

    My mobile phone is just that, a mobile phone, not a convention centre.

    1. Robert Chantrell

      Engineer now bus driver

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Both my wife and I share your feelings 100 percent.
      I am sure our kids would be better off if they did as well and facebook and the others did not exist.
      If all the smart phones failed...if....then our kids could not operate in the real world.

  3. Zane Mookhoek

    logged in via Facebook

    "The Ara phone is modular, meaning that people can use 3D printers from their homes to replace core technological components as needed and switch aesthetic parts such as the housing at leisure."

    Uh.. not quite. You won't be able to create SoC's from a 3D printer. Not possible. It will be aesthetic. A case maybe. That's about it. You'll be buying parts from vendors and whatnot.

    1. Zane Mookhoek

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Trent Yarwood

      They did. They mentioned Project Ara which is Motorola working with the Phonebloks people.

  4. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    More green window dressing to make you all feel better is all the fair phone is.
    Rich western yuppies will buy one to appear green on their next Jet A1 fuel sponsored holiday flight to impress their friends.

    Third world customers will see them as patronizing wanks and instead aspire to Phone's like the rest of us.
    And what about fair electronic and internet infrastructure which has a tea cosy to keep the optic fibre warm.

    Stop patronizing the people in the third world and instead let them too use the minerals and energy to make their world modern like ours.

    1. Joe K

      logged in via email

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Dear Mr. Dean:

      I highly recommend exploring the content at the URL that Mr. Haughton has provided, as your comment is troubling to say the least. Don't feel isolated, though, sir, as many Managing Directors suffer from these kinds of problems.

      Kind regards,