This post is the second in a series of businesses that are positive and sustainable. With this series, I want to show that it is possible for for-profit businesses to be ethical and sustainable. You can read all posts in this series here.
Fairphone is a smartphone manufacturer based in The Netherlands, but it is unlike any other smartphone manufacturer. Their entire mission is to make the electronics industry more fair. As you will see in this post, this involves so much more than just the product itself.
Their first product launched in 2013 and at the time of writing this they’re selling their 4th generation smartphone (FP4). I’ve been using a Fairphone 3+ (now discontinued) as my only phone since July 2021 and have been happy with it.
But what’s so different about Fairphone? Let’s dive in.
Fairphone products are what would be considered mid-range Android phones. That’s not their most appealing feature though. At a time when “market leaders” had policies that would result in your warranty being void for the most ridiculous reasons, Fairphone phones were designed to be repairable. For example, the FP3 received a perfect iFixit score of 10.
My FP3+ came with a screwdriver in the box. The side has “Designed to open” etched on it. Making repairs and replacing parts is easy even for users who are not tech-savvy (I would liken it to repairing Ikea furniture).
And remember, all of this was long before right-to-repair was a thing.
Hardware to last
The philosophy of Fairphone is to use a phone for as long as it lasts. In other words, they have steered clear of the “release a new product every year and entice you to upgrade every year” poisonous cycle that is now pretty standard in the electronics industry. There are 2 steps to achieve this:
- Making it easy to repair and replace parts, as I already mentioned above
- Offering spare parts for as long as one can expect a phone to be reasonably used.
I’m writing this in April 2023. Today, spare parts like camera module, display module and battery are still available for the FP2 which was launched in 2015. You read that right.
Official, original spare parts are still available in 2023 for a phone that was launched in 2015!!.
Model lineup to last
This is kind of a corollary to the previous point. In 10 years, Fairphone has only released 4 models (5, if you consider the 3 and 3+ as different models). Just doubling the time between consecutive releases results in an exponential increase in sustainability. FP has proved that there is simply no need to keep churning out model after model endlessly.
Software to last
I get a feeling that Fairphone’s philosophy of longevity also extends to their software. The phone comes with Android that is very close to stock. But there’s more than that.
FP3+ was released in 2020 with Android 10. Since then it has been updated to Android 11. While it has not received major OS updates since, I still receive regular security updates. For example, my phone has the “5 April 2023” security update installed.
My initial impression of this was negative - I was of the opinion that for a phone to last long, it must offer major OS updates for 4 years. However, the more I read up about this, the more I realized that the continuous OS updates could be detrimental to sustainability.
The big Smartphone OS vendors seem to be locked in a vanity war - of releasing “major” OS updates every year. How major these updates really are is debatable. However, for smartphone OEMs, the race to provide updates is not really sustainable. An annual cycle is hugely disruptive and the effort spent in there could be well utilized elsewhere - for example to provide security updates for older models.
My conclusion is that by staying away from the rat race and instead opting to priotitize security updates for even older models, Fairphone has managed to settle on a software model that is more sustainable for themselves and for their customers.
Fairphone has stayed away from the rat race of updating to the newest OS version and in the process made it more sustainable for themselves and their customers
Until now we’ve only been talking about the user-facing product. But what ultimately sets Fairphone apart from any other OEM out there is what goes on behind the scenes. The supply chain involved in producing a smartphone (or any consumer electronics for that matter) is incredibly opaque. Some of the factors for driving down prices are
- Unethical mining and other ways of sourcing the materials required for production
- Unethical low wages for the workers involved in the manufacturing
Fairphone has set out to tackle these problems and as their impact report reveals, they have acheieved reasonable success on this front.
This is related to the previous point. A Fairphone costs more than a comparable model from competitors. The statement here is
This is what it costs to produce such a phone in a fair manner.
If the phone is priced any lower then that difference in cost is borne by someone else (that might be the environment, the workers involved in the production or some other entity). This concept of fair pricing is common in other products in the sustainable industry (clothes, food products and more).
When you order a Fairphone, the packaging that the phone arrives in is a model for other smartphone manufacturers to emulate. Almost everything is either recycled or recyclable.
Almost everything in the packacging is either recycled or recyclable.
There’s also a box in which you can return your old phone to Fairphone for recycling. You might be able to get an idea of this if you watch any of the unboxing videos of Fairphone.
Fairphone publishes the entire PCB schematics and everything else needed to repair the Fairphone. The document is here (Warning: This PDF is over 35MB). I don’t know of any other manufacturer that does this. FP is truly a pioneer in this regard. With this single document, FP show how serious they are about repairability, recycling and transparency.
The final topic I want to touch upon is honesty. In a world with attention spans measured in microseconds, it is tempting to go overboard on marketing and making tall claims about one’s product. In this world, Fairphone has repeatedly acknowledged that there are several aspects of their product and business that are still not fair or still not sustainable.
Fairphone has repeatedly acknowledged that there are several aspects of their product and business that are still not fair or still not sustainable
You see glimpses of this in the video that I linked to at the top of this post where the founder of Fairphone admits to several flaws in the processes. In my opinion this is a crucial factor in the road to sustainability: Staying grounded. In this aspect too, Fairphone has come out ahead of the incumbents.
Fairphone has proved beyond an iota of doubt that consumer electronics can tick all of the below boxes
- Good for the users
- Good for the environment
- Good for the company
- Good for the workers
This is not an opinion. This is a fact - it has been proven with facts and figures.
There really is no excuse for incumbents to cling to the traditional exploitative, environmentally harmful model.