Today’s smartphone market is fuelled by manufacturers battling to stay at the bleeding edge of mobile technology, the theory being that the company that comes out on top is the one that can be the most innovative.
That being the case, creating and marketing a phone that puts ethics ahead of tech is always going to be a challenge, as Amsterdam-based social enterprise Fairphone can attest to. By sourcing its materials from local initiatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo rather than militia-run mines, the NT100-listed company has been able to produce an “ethical” smartphone and secured deals with Dutch operator KPN and UK-based Phone Co-Op to supply it.
“We want to make people more aware of the materials behind the product,” Roos van de Weerd, Public Engagement Manager at Fairphone, tells Mobile Europe. “We’re trying to find out where every little part comes from and see if we can re-think those systems behind it.”
In terms of technical specifications, the Fairphone is comparable to any other mid-range handset buyers can pick up. Weerd likens it to an early Google Nexus device, and at €310 claims it can go toe-to-toe with other smartphones in its price range.
“We’ve chosen a model that’s relatively easy to take apart to improve reparability,” says Weerd. “We sell spare parts as well, from extra batteries to the really complex parts. We’re working together with iFixit, who’ve made manuals for Fairphone so you can repair anything from your display to your camera lens.
“We’ve also been able to integrate most consumer-recycled plastic for the housing, and it’s just as firm as any other plastics out there. Ideally, we’re aiming to close the loop so that phones are recycled and used again in the production process.”
But with philosophy stamped as the handset’s main USP, from a technical standpoint there’s nothing stopping it becoming lost in the sea more established handsets crowding the mobile space. Ben Wood, Chief of Research at CCS Insight, thinks that while such initiatives provide an ethical alternative to the competition, the selective supply chain is also one of their biggest hindrances.
“There seems little or no technical benefit to using 100 percent ethical components,” he says. “If anything, it limits the suppliers a manufacturer can work with, which can only be detrimental both in terms of supply, capability and pricing.”
Weerd admits to having experienced problems addressing the demands of consumers and keeping up with the market whilst maintaining the Fairphone's ethos.
“We need to know what the market does and move along with it,” she says. “To give a very concrete example, we didn’t have 4G for this model, and a lot of people were bummed by that. But at that point during production, 4G wasn’t supported by a lot of providers, so for us, going with 3G was an obvious decision.”
Weerd insists technology isn’t taking a back seat, however. The company has already begun production of a second model, which will attempt to target a class of smartphone comparable to Google’s Nexus 5.
“What we’re doing for the Fairphone 2 is designing from scratch, and we’re thinking about how we can develop a smartphone that incorporates the ethical values we believe in from the very early stages onwards,” says Weerd.
“We need to compare the wishes of consumers to what is actually necessary, what the cost is and what the right balance is.”
Ultimately, projects like Fairphone have little hope of making it into the mobile big leagues alongside Apple and Samsung, but that's not to say there's not a market for the guilt-free handset. If Weerd and her team can tap into a niche, there's every chance it could take off.