We Need To Rethink Democracy In Smartphones – Fairphone Case Study

16 min read
Fairphone 3, sustainably produced smartphone. Source: Fairphone.

Smartphones are ubiquitous. In 2020, nearly half (3.8 billion) of the world’s population (7.8 billion) were smartphone users.1“Smartphone Users 2020.” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021 The share of the global population using smartphones will continue to grow across the world. Mordorintelligence, a market research company, projects that the global smartphone market will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 11.2% between 2018 – 2026.2Smartphones Market | Growth, Trends, and Forecasts (2020 – 2025). https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/smartphones-market. Accessed 12 Mar. 2021

As more people get access to mobile broadband (3G connection or higher) the smartphone adoption will continue to grow globally. Smartphones are appealing because they serve as our personal pocket computers and powerful personal assistants. Smartphones help us stay connected, enable us to work, and make it easy to capture memories. Even though they are very convenient and affordable tools, they are not good for the people involved in their production, and neither are they good for the planet. We need to rethink how we produce, use and re-use smartphones.

We need to rethink how we produce, use and re-use smartphones.

They are bad for the people involved in the manufacturing of smartphones because the extraction of minerals used in smartphone components relies (to significant extent) on child labor and conflict materials.3Fairphone. The Hidden Impact of the Smartphone Industry | Fairphone. 2021. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRi4srOjtSM., 4Is My Phone Powered by Child Labour?https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/drc-cobalt-child-labour/. Accessed 12 Mar. 2021.4 Although, the smartphone manufacturing (and the related mineral extraction operations) may provide jobs to rural and remote communities, they pay poorly and pollute their living environment. In a nutshell, these jobs limit the communities to realize their full potential. There is room for more democracy and empowerment of the people who are involved in producing smartphones.

They are bad for the planet because smartphones contribute to the e-waste problem. According to the Global e-Waste Monitor 2020 report, e-waste is dangerous because of the toxic and hazardous materials such as mercury, cadmium, and bromine. These materials may cause damage to the brain, kidney or other organs5“Cell Phone Toxins and the Harmful Effects on the Human Body When Recycled Improperly.” E-Cycle, 15 Oct. 2013, https://www.e-cycle.com/cell-phone-toxins-and-the-harmful-effects-on-the-human-body-when-recycled-improperly.
To make matters worse, over 80% of the e-waste flows are not accounted, making it difficult to trace.6Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. United Nations University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) – co-hosted SCYCLE Programme, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam. Available at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Environment/Documents/Toolbox/GEM_2020_def.pdf The report cites that the rising disposable incomes of people around the world, coupled with the short life-cycle of smartphones and the few repair options, contribute to the electronic e-waste problem.

The (democratic) future of smartphone means we need to rethink the software, hardware, the people and planet involved in the production, use and re-use of smartphones. Software needs to be open-source, hardware needs to be modular and reparable, the people need to have decent working and living conditions and the planet needs to be respected by manufacturing smartphones that will be part of a circular system (cradle to cradle).

Not all is gloom. There are smartphone manufacturers that produce phones sustainably. Fairphone is one company that is paving the way towards a sustainable production, use and re-use of smartphones.

Please note that this is not an affiliate article. The views contained in this article are of the authors.

Quick Summary

  • Fairphone offers a sustainability-focused alternative to the mainstream smartphones.
  • Smartphones should have software that is open-source and upgradeable for as long as the user keeps the phone.
  • Smartphone hardware needs to be modular and reparable to ensure the maximum longevity of the device.
  • Smartphones should be designed with respect for the planet and ensure that devices can be re-used and re-cycled, i.e. smartphones should be built for a circular economy (cradle to cradle).
  • Smartphones that are open-source, modular and recyclable contribute to democracy in technology because they empower the users to use and upgrade their overpowered smartphones longer than mainstream manufacturers’ intent, they empower the workers producing the phones by ensuring they receive decent wages and live in a safe environment, and the minerals used in smartphones follow a circular life-cycle, thus respecting the environment.

What is Fairphone?

Fairphone is a social enterprise that was founded in 2013 with the mission of creating an environmentally low-impact smartphone. Based out of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Fairphone aims to produce phones sustainably through several goals. 

One, they aim to produce devices that do not include conflict minerals. Ecovadis defines conflict minerals as “raw materials or minerals that come from a particular part of the world where conflict is occurring and affects the mining and trading of those materials.”7https://ecovadis.com/academy/conflict-minerals/

Second, they strive to provide livable wages to miners at the source of their supply chain, unlike many of their competitors. According to The Guardian, the cobalt supply chain in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is to blame for the death and injury of multiple children in the mining industry. Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla have all been named as defendants in a lawsuit that claims the children were working within their supply chains at the time of their injuries or deaths. More about the lawsuit can be found here. 

Fairphone specializes in making modular phones that compete with today’s biggest brands. Fairphone was founded in 2013 and they released their latest model, the Fairphone 3+, in September of 2020.8https://www.fairphone.com/en/project/responsible-sourcing As a sustainability oriented company, Fairphone aims to make its phones modular, which is an industry trend that more manufacturers should adopt. 

What are modular phones and how do they work?

A modular phone has interchangeable parts, effectively allowing the customer to repair or upgrade components of the phones. Some pieces include digital camera, GPS capabilities, extra storage, extended batteries, and more. This characteristic allows for smartphones to be repaired piece by piece, rather than replacing the entire phone if something would break.

According to Fairphone’s online store, a replacement camera for a Fairphone 3 will cost roughly €49.95 ($60.83 USD – March 2021 rates) and a brand new battery will be €29.95 ($36.44 USD – March 2021 rates). Today’s flagships phones are designed without repairs in mind. They can only be opened by certified dealers. Sometimes, instead of fixing a component, the customer needs to buy a new phone. This can be very expensive. Some flagship mainstream brands surpass the $1,000 USD mark for a single device.

Modular phones aim to cut down e-waste and allow for better recyclability of their phones. The consumer reaps the benefit of only paying for the broken piece, rather than paying for expensive repairs, warranties or sometimes needing to replace the full phone. Fairphone makes it easy for anyone to repair their own phones, leaving useful tutorials and instructions.9https://www.saga.co.uk/magazine/technology/mobile-tablet/phones-and-tablets/what-is-a-modular-phone

Although Fairphone is a well-known example, there are alternatives. Shiftphone is a German smartphone company that follows similar ethical business practices as Fairphone, while also advertising their smartphone as “the most modular smartphone in the world.”10https://www.saga.co.uk/magazine/technology/mobile-tablet/phones-and-tablets/what-is-a-modular-phone

Ensuring that their production line includes eco-friendly practices and supports the European economy, PuzzlePhone is also a reasonable alternative to Fairphone. They may not bolster many modular pieces (only having 3), but the software within their phone competes with other top-end smartphone companies.11http://www.puzzlephone.com Fairphone in comparison includes 7 modular pieces and Shiftphone’s SHIFT6m comprises 13. 

Why Are Modular Phones Important For Democratizing Technology? 

Modular phones are important for 3 key reasons: reducing e-waste, providing decent jobs for the workers, and ensuring affordable phone ownership for end-users. All these contribute to democratizing technology.

Environmentally safer. Modular phones are intended to help lower the burden that smartphones put onto the environment. Not only do most mobile phones contain a variety of toxic components that are hazardous for the environment, but the smartphone product cycle can leave millions in landfills each year. In the United States alone, about 150 million mobile phones per year are thrown away. 

Over 80% of electronic waste is not recycled. Depending on the perspective, this is a big problem or an opportunity. Source: Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

Similarly, in the UK only 12% of smartphones are recycled every year. Our current practices leave tons of valuable raw materials in landfills. The quantities of raw materials it takes to make only one smartphone include 7 kg of gold ore, 1 kg of copper ore, 750 g of tungsten, and 200 g of nickel. That is roughly 9kg of metal ore being used to manufacture a 150g device. That’s only about 2% of the ore used! Since phones are not built to be recycled, the world produces roughly 50 million tonnes of electronic waste every year from mobile devices.12https://www.saga.co.uk/magazine/technology/mobile-tablet/phones-and-tablets/what-is-a-modular-phone

The Global e-Waste Monitor Report estimates that the value of the generated e-waste globally is $57 billion USD.13Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. United Nations University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) – co-hosted SCYCLE Programme, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam. Available at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Environment/Documents/Toolbox/GEM_2020_def.pdf This includes all types of e-waste, not just smartphone e-waste.

In 2020, the global smartphone market was valued at $715 billion USD.14Smartphones Market | Growth, Trends, and Forecasts (2020 – 2025). https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/smartphones-market. Accessed 12 Mar. 2021. The value of all raw materials in e-waste is estimated to be $57 billion USD, which is only about 8% of the total smartphone market value in 2020. It may seem inconsequential. It may seem like the smartphone industry is quite efficient, as it can produce more value than waste. However, $57 billion is the equivalent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Croatia, a 4 million people, upper-middle income country in Europe.

To tech companies that are collectively worth trillions, $57 billion in e-waste may not seem large, but this waste is severely affecting the environment, and the people involved in the extraction of the raw materials needed to produce them.

It is important that we, as a civilization, progress without disrupting or harming the natural and environmental processes. This requires that we rethink our metrics for efficiency, innovation, and success, and awards for design and user experience.

Provide decent jobs. Producing a phone is more than just its components. Ethically sourcing raw materials is an essential aspect of the Fairphone business model. Since 2013, they use conflict-free tin and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and conflict-free tungsten from Rwanda. They source their gold from Peru, a non-conflict region, but Fairphone is continuing to work with human rights organizations to construct a sustainable and ethical gold supply chain from the DRC to supplement their Peruvian supply.15https://medium.com/@sophiejeanwilson/how-fair-is-fairphone-f3f0e046e40d

We should not take pride in technological innovation if we base it on human suffering. We need to place as much importance on the workers’ experience as much as tech companies spend on the user experience. Photo by Mike from Pexels

Fairphone also stresses the importance of creating a satisfactory work environment for their employees. The company has made the following statement on their website: “We believe that the people working in the electronics industry should have a decent life with sufficient income, a voice in their own workplace and that their safety should be protected.” In working towards their goal, Fairphone has started the “Worker’s Welfare Fund,” a forum where workers can write their problems or concerns to employers. Phone sales are used to finance the fund. They have also set a minimum wage through all of their partnered suppliers, but have yet to mandate a living wage. Fairphone takes steps to democratize and empower the workers who contribute to producing the smartphones, aiming to empowering individuals and communities, one day at a time.

It may be unreasonable to hold smartphone manufacturers liable for workers’ malpractice throughout the entire supply chain and across multiple countries. However, it is important to recognize that lax working conditions in other countries contribute to the profitability of these companies. If smartphone companies want to support democracy, then they should leverage their buying power and influence and assume greater responsibility in creating a great human experience for all workers involved in the production process, not just focus on the user experience and design for their software and devices. The human experience of smartphone manufacturing should not be an afterthought.

Companies need to put as much emphasis on the workers’ experience as they do on the user experience (UX) and design of their software and hardware.

Ensure affordability and dignity for end-users. Supporting a modular phone company that practices a sustainable business model has its benefits. As stated before, the consumer will save money on the cost of repairing and upgrading their smartphones. If the camera breaks, swap it out. If the battery is weakening, buy a new one. If the camera is not good enough after a few years, upgrade it with a newer, more powerful version. Modular phones are designed to last. Mainstream phones are designed to become obsolete.

As stated before, other companies such as Shiftphone and Puzzlephone are following in Fairphone’s footsteps. Even Apple is researching the benefits of becoming environmentally sustainable. 

Privacy and the use of personal date are also at the forefront of user experience and dignity for the end-user. Fairphone aims to offer a “de-Googled” phone starting with its Fairphone 316https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/fairphone-3-can-now-be-bought-with-a-de-googled-os/ar-BB13mSa7 A “de-Googled” phone is an Android device without pre-installed Google Services. This is important because most Android smartphones come with Google Services installed and Google snoops most of the users’ data for free and sells it for a profit. Fairphone offers an alternative way to increase users’ privacy.

The privacy conscious users can consider purchasing their new phone from the eSolutions shop that features de-Googled phones from various vendors. User privacy is an important element for empowering people and democratizing societies, but we will engage in deeper discussions in future blog posts. For a start, we would recommend checking out Dr. Fred Cate’s talk on Data Privacy and Consent at the TedxIndiana University.17TEDx Talks. Data Privacy and Consent | Fred Cate | TEDxIndianaUniversity. 2020. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iPDpV8ojHA.

Although they have the potential to change the industry, modular phones also have their downsides. 

Why are more people not using Modular Phones?

If modular phones are so revolutionary, why are mass markets not buying into them? Some reasons include lack of trust, potential for high costs, and the lack of competitive features. 

Around 2015, modular phones attracted some attention from mainstream consumers: the LG G5 and the Moto Z featured some modular capabilities. But, popular demand for these phones has gone silent, with the LG G5 being considered a flop and the Moto Z production being halted.18https://www.saga.co.uk/magazine/technology/mobile-tablet/phones-and-tablets/what-is-a-modular-phone Google even cancelled production of their highly anticipated “Project Ara,19https://dailywireless.org/mobile/what-happened-to-project-ara/ Ara as Google’s attempt at a modular phone.

Users like stability and would not trust the “new kid on the block” with untested technology.20https://www.pcworld.com/article/2975864/7-reasons-why-modular-smartphones-are-such-a-nightmare-to-develop.html Modular phones are still, to some extent, prototypes. They have not had the years of refined testing. There are no industry standards for the modular components. Fairphone’s camera module would not fit on Shiftphone’s camera module. Although Fairphone has a solid and a growing reception, it would require a dramatic shift in the behavior of consumers in order to see greater adoption of modular phones.

In the long term, some consumers also questioned whether they would save money by owning a modular phone. The newest Fairphone is sold on their website for €399 ($480 – March 2021 rate). Although that may appear to be a good deal compared to some other newer phones, many of the spare parts can cost anywhere from €12.95 ($15.58 – March 2021 rate) for an additional earphone chord, up to €89.95 ($108.2 – March 2021 rate) for a new Fairphone screen replacement.21https://shop.fairphone.com/en/spare-parts After owning the smartphone for a few years, buyers are worried they would end up putting more money into replacement parts than it would have cost to buy a different brand of phone. 

Customers also fear that Fairphone devices may not beat the latest technology from mainstream tech developers. When comparing the Fairphone 3 (2019) to the iPhone X (2017), the Fairphone has some improvements to make before it can compete with the latest mainstream models. The iPhone X has double the amount of megapixels in their camera, is dustproof and waterproof, has 192GB more internal storage, and even has a slightly larger screen size.22https://versus.com/en/apple-iphone-x-vs-fairphone-3

Comparison between iPhone X and Fairphone 3. Source: Versus.Com

Fairphone is behind the curve compared to the specifications offered by mainstream flagship phones such as iPhone Samsung, Google or Huawei (major player outside of the US). Currently, Fairphone offers less processing speed, ram, space and camera quality than their mainstream flagship competitors. 

Fairphone is a competitive phone, however, it does not offer the “latest and greatest” features that mainstream flagship phones offer.

Even though modular phones have some aspects that require getting used to, their business model is causing many companies in the industry to reconsider the future of smartphones.

How can we rethink the hardware and software industry for smartphones? What’s the future of smartphones?

As it stands, smartphones are built, used, and then thrown away once the newest model is released. The future of the smartphone industry relies on a more holistic approach to ensure a prolonged life of a smartphone. It is important to rethink the hardware, software, the people and the planet involved in the lifestyle of smartphones. We should aim for circular, cradle to cradle, not cradle to grave approach to smartphones’ life-cycle.

Hardware 

Modular phones are designed for longevity, not obsolescence. The task of designing recyclable components that can easily be replaced when broken or in need of an upgrade is a difficult, but a necessary one.

It is not only important to source ethically the materials needed to manufacture the hardware for a smartphone, companies should build a circular business model rather than perpetuate the current linear product cycle. To do so, manufacturers need to make clear how each component of the smartphone will be reused.

The next hurdle would be to create a supply chain that has the means to reuse the components in a cost-efficient manner, ensuring that no resources are wasted in the process. A circular approach could even be convenient for the consumer because the only change that would be asked of them would be to turn in their phone once they are done using it. There are companies like ecoATM that pay people for recycling their old phones.23https://www.ecoatm.com/

Mainstream manufacturers can emulate the successes of Fairphone in designing modular phones, where the pieces can be replaced or upgraded as needed. In addition, all the components of a phone should be recyclable.

Software 

Open source software should go hand-in-hand with modular hardware.

Another important change that needs to be made in the smartphone industry is the right of the user to choose the operating system (software) within their devices. Why should customers be willing to pay for a phone that stops receiving software updates after only a few years? Currently, iPhones and Samsung smartphones receive software upgrades for 3 years. Is the device not capable enough to run the new updates after a few years? This practice is arbitrary and must be reconsidered. Major phone producers such as iPhone and Samsung have been fined for intentionally slowing down their phones with software updates.24https://www.cnet.com/news/apple-and-samsung-fined-for-slowing-down-phones-with-updates/

There are already communities of programmers that develop and maintain operating systems for smartphones.

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Andorid are the most common operating systems found on smartphones. Not only is changing the operating system on these devices complicated, doing so can often void the warranty of the phone or result in “bricking” or “jail breaking” the phone. This may cause the phone to stop working.

Hardware and software design should go hand in hand. By making smartphone hardware modular and the software (operating system) open-source, users could choose their operating system that best suits their needs. The phone companies would have to think of different ways to compensate their lost revenues.

Currently, Fairphone offers instructions on how to install open-source operating systems for those users who prefer an alternative to Google. At the moment, this requires some “tech savvines” and determination to follow instructions. Many users prefer the “out-of-the-box” solution that Google’s Android provides.

People and Planet

Companies should place as much emphasis on the human and planet experiences, as much as on consumer user experience and design.

We can summarize ethical issues with the smartphone industry as lack of fair treatment for people, including consumers and workers, and the planet. Smartphone manufacturers must assume more responsibility for the impact their industry has on the people and the planet throughout the entire life-cycle of the smartphone, from the workers of cobalt mines in Congo, to the pockets of end-users in North America, and landfills all over the world.

Fairphone uses part of the revenues it generates to finance a Worker’s Welfare Fund. Although, it fails in setting up a fund with every supplier,25“Reflecting on Our Efforts to Set up a Worker Welfare Fund at Hi-P.” Fairphone, 22 June 2018, https://www.fairphone.com/en/2018/06/22/reflecting-on-our-efforts-to-set-up-a-worker-welfare-fund-at-hi-p/. it is crucial to have high ambitions and communicate this to suppliers. Fairphone does not always succeed, but it keeps pushing for the workers throughout the supply change to have a voice and a living wage.

Finally, Fairphone care about the planet. Smartphone are complex and are difficult to recycle. Yet, Fairphone is partnering with other organisations, such as Closing The Loop, a Dutch social enterprise, to raise awareness, to learn how to recycle and to build circularity into the business model of Fairphone.

Actions – Next Steps

Society must think holistically about smartphones’ life-cycle. Currently, phones are very linear: industries produce them, consumers then use them, and they throw away when the next innovation is released. These devices are designed to be obsolete. Moving towards modular hardware and open source software would ensure that these devices would have a prolonged lifespan through having spare parts available to replace or upgrade the phones.

As always, there are several recommendations we can make, how to get involved with democratizing technology by following the path of Fairphone:

  • Educate yourself about alternatives (modular devices): Here is a list of some of the best sustainable smartphones for the year 2021. It does not include all modular phones, but models such as the Fairphone 3 and SHIFT6m made the list.
  • Support financially initiatives such as FairPhone: Crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo provide opportunities for consumers to support projects financially. There are dozens of modular and sustainable phone designs listed on these websites. 
  • Develop a product or a software: If you are an engineer or an enthusiast, then consider developing or improving on Fairphone’s concepts. You can suggest ideas for hardware or software improvements. If funding is an issue, maybe consider using crowdfunding websites to access the needed finances.
  • Partner with existing market leaders: Sometimes it is easier to partner with existing companies and organizations rather than building your own. Consider volunteering, working or partnering with companies such as Fairphone.
  • Start a company: You hate the way Fairphone is run? You believe you can take things to the next level under your leadership? Launch your own modular and sustainable hardware or open-source software service.
  • Advocate for legislative changes: Without the right legal framework, it will be difficult to ensure the sustainability of modular phones. Writing letters to Congressmembers is the most direct way to express your opinion to your legislators. Signing online petitions may be a convenient and a great for raising initial awareness, but ultimately would be less effective than advocating for legal changes.

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