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Dutch Fairphone Focuses on Sustainable Supply Chain & ConMin

An Amsterdam startup designed and crowdsourced a new Android smartphone. The Fairphone is created on the principle that manufacturing must be done with minimal harm to the planet.

Human beings are natural collectors of stuff. In fact, society seems to be driven by consumerism. Most people buy, use, and discard electronic products with little thought to how that might impact the environment. There are even collectors with a passion for electronic devices, yet how many of them ever wonder what is inside their devices or who made them? Who are all those people working from where the supply chain starts to where it comes to an end in the form of a smartphone? What is their contribution to the smartphone you use daily? What are they getting in return?

People and the environment first
The Fairphone team members asked themselves questions of this kind and more. They went on a crusade far from their headquarters in Amsterdam to find the answers. They visited mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the manufacturing site in China. They decided to improve conditions for workers on the supply chain that would be part of the Fairphone. They built an e-waste program, and they started a crowdsourced program to pre-sell their sustainable smartphone, which is designed to put people and the environment first.

Fairphone shared a variety of images with EBN. Click the photo below for a slideshow of the process of creating the Fairphone from start to finish.

Urban Mining

Electronic printed circuit boards (PCBs) contain at least 32 kinds of minerals. Fairphone wants to underscore the importance of proper recycling and preventing e-waste. It organizes workshops and other 'urban mining' events at festivals, schools, and fairs. This picture was takenat a 2011 event in the Netherlands.

Electronic printed circuit boards (PCBs) contain at least 32 kinds of minerals. Fairphone wants to underscore the importance of proper recycling and preventing e-waste. It organizes workshops and other “urban mining” events at festivals, schools, and fairs. This picture was taken
at a 2011 event in the Netherlands.

Some sustainable features of the project include:

  • Conflict-free tin and tantalum (from the DRC)
  • Rootable OS
  • Worker welfare
  • Replaceable battery
  • E-waste program
  • Dual SIM

Fairphone has put a complete list of specs on its website. It is also maintaining a Log Book of changes/updates to the phone. From the Sept. 13 entry:

The original model on which Fairphone was based formerly used normal polycarbonate. Now, we can announce that after quite some tests, our manufacturer made it possible to instead use post-consumer recycled polycarbonate. That means a lot of old devices being smashed, melted and reused! And fewer CO2 emissions, of course.

Conflict-Free Tin Initiative
Fairphone joined the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI) on a visit to a tin mine in the eastern DRC. The CFTI says its aim is “to create demand for conflict-free tin from this region,” and to create “a prospect for economic development and regional stability.”

The company will use conflict-free tin for soldering phone components at the assembly stage. Mobile phones contain more than 30 different kinds of minerals and metals, including copper, cobalt, gold, and tin. Tin and other metals and minerals that come from areas with severe internal conflicts are known as conflict minerals because, more frequently than not, they are sold by warlords.

From beginning to end
In the video below, Joe Mier, community manager at Fairphone, explains the timeline from pre-orders in May to getting the conflict-free minerals, the software development in Portugal, and building the support center in Amsterdam.

Expectation and support
The pre-order program, which is still open and available in Europe, has been a success. At the time of this writing, 15,230 of the first batch of 25,000 phones being manufactured had been sold. The price, including taxes in Europe, is €325 ($440).

When a new smartphone is announced, there are always expectations among the news media, enterprises, and consumers about how the newcomer will play the game, what OS it will run, what innovative features it will have, and so on. In the case of the Fairphone, I am pretty sure innovation comes hand in hand with a proposal for looking at a smartphone with different eyes.

Having the environment, e-waste reality, worker welfare, and the conflict-free minerals in mind, this company is thinking beyond creating a multimillion-dollar account for itself.

34 comments on “Dutch Fairphone Focuses on Sustainable Supply Chain & ConMin

  1. Ariella
    September 24, 2013

    @Susan “That means a lot of old devices being smashed, melted and reused! And fewer CO2 emissions, of course.”  That sounds like a great idea to me. I'm all for recycling and upcycling. I'm glad there are companies that are doing this now.

  2. Susan Fourtané
    September 25, 2013

    Indeed, Ariella.

    The best part is that they care since the beginning, before production. This way they can build a really sustainable phone. People in Europe are responding well to the initiative. Working together with the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative in the Netherlands is important, too. 

    I really liked to have a closer look to how a phone is made when working on this piece, even if it was only in pictures. 🙂 Did you like the slide show? 

    -Susan

  3. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 25, 2013

    @Susan, i really liked the slideshow…i don't think i've ever really seen what's behind all the components we talk about. it was a real eye-opener. thanks!

  4. Susan Fourtané
    September 25, 2013

    Hailey, 

    I'm glad you liked it. 🙂

    I also think it's very nice to see what's behind what we discuss daily. They have hundreds of pictures about the different stages. It was not easy to pick just a few. But I think they make up a good summary of what's behind the making of a smartphone, right?

    -Susan 

  5. Lavender
    September 25, 2013

    The idea caring environment and recycling is good. But for Fairphone, I think there is still a long way to make it popular worldwide, since it seems that only limited consumers really pay attention to environmental-protection electronic products, although they often give lip to them. 

    In addition Samsung and iPhone brands are strong rivals. 

  6. Ariella
    September 25, 2013

    @Hailey @Susan yes, a lot goes into something quite small.

  7. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 26, 2013

    @Lily, yes…we have a ways to go, but sometimes, one company creating a product that addresses the enviroment goes a long way to starting a trend. I thnk of the Toyota Prius which was alone in the market five years ago and now every car maker has something green. this is a good start.

  8. Himanshugupta
    September 26, 2013

    I think Europe is a prefect place to start such an initiative. The people and local synergy make such things click. I guess such initiatives take a long time to be profitable but i think profit is the last of the worry for Fairphone.

  9. Ashu001
    September 26, 2013

    Himanshu,

    Yes it does Help that the Europeans are Statist to the core(and comfortable with a Large Role of the State in the Economy).

    The rest of the world not so much.

    However,since most of Europe today is bankrupt I don't see how they can raise funds for these kinds of incentives today.

    What's with the Dual Sim functionality?How is that supposed to be sustainable????

  10. Lavender
    September 26, 2013

    Hailey, yes. 

    Anyway, manufacturers' effort to protect environment deserves praise. But I think more attention should be payed to consumers. When consumers has environment protection concept, they can drive manufacturers to produce energy-saving products. 

    However, many consumers just shout but do no any friendly things. 

  11. ahdand
    September 27, 2013

    @himanshagupta: Exactly it is a good place and even the market is very much stable there compared to other countries. Also you have resources to do it since there are lots of expats too

  12. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    Humanshu, 

    “I think profit is the last of the worry for Fairphone.”

    You have truly understood the point. 🙂

    This phone has not been thought to be profitable, or to compete with any other smartphone. They have other plans in mind. They decided to make the phone as part of their investigation on conflict minerals. This way they could get closer to the controlled areas, mines, etc. 

    I believe there are quite many people in Europe who are interested in an initiative of this kind.  

    -Susan

  13. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    Ashish, 

    “What's with the Dual Sim functionality?How is that supposed to be sustainable????”

    So you can have one SIM for work, and one for your personal stuff? 

    -Susan

  14. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    Hailey, 

    This phone has not been thought to be profitable, or to compete with any other smartphone. They have other plans in mind. They decided to make the phone as part of their investigation on conflict minerals. This way they could get closer to the controlled areas, mines, etc

    -Susan

  15. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    nimantha, 

    What is the conection with the expats? 

    -Susan

  16. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    Lily, 

    This phone has not been thought to be profitable, or to compete with any other smartphone.

    They have other plans in mind. They decided to make the phone as part of their investigation on conflict minerals. This way they could get closer to the controlled areas, mines, etc. That's the point of this phone. 

    -Susan

  17. Ashu001
    September 27, 2013

    Susan,

    Have'nt you heard of Blackberry Balance?

    If Android has now built something very similar through their KNOX series of OSes.

    You don't need Dual SIM Functionality for that.

    I still don't get it how thats supposed to be Sustainable?

    Not like it stops you from getting a New Phone if you don't have any Self-Control over yourself!!

  18. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    Ashish, 

    It's not about the dual SIM. It's pretty clear what it is about. 

    -Susan

  19. Ashu001
    September 27, 2013

    Susan,

    Please clarify further.

    Its not clear to me.

    Apart from the Dual Sim,I don't have issues with the other things raised in the report(they can promote some degree of Sustainability in the Supply Chain).

     

  20. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    Ashish, 

    You are focusing on the dual SIM only. Read the story.

    This phone has not been thought to be profitable as first motivation, or to compete with any other smartphones.

    They decided to make the phone as part of their investigation on conflict minerals. This way they could get closer to the controlled areas, mines, etc. That's the point of this phone. To uncover what's behind the conflict minerals' problems. Did you see the slideshow? 

    -Susan

  21. Himanshugupta
    September 27, 2013

    I think having a dual SIM functionaliy is really good, not so many phones in The Netherlands have this.

  22. Susan Fourtané
    September 27, 2013

    Himanshu, 

    I meant to make Ashish notice all what is behind the phone. If you read his comments below you will see why my comment about the SIM. What a mess. 😀

    -Susan

  23. BenjiMac
    September 29, 2013

    I looked at Wikipedia article for Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I see no reason to call anything in that country “conflict free”. Does Fairphone have an explanation for their selection?

  24. Susan Fourtané
    September 29, 2013

    BenjiMac, 

    Of course Fairphone has a reason. Reading my article, and follwing the links I added for more information could help clarify your questions. 🙂  

    I wrote: Fairphone joined the  Conflict-Free Tin Initiative   (CFTI) on a visit to a  tin mine  in the eastern DRC. The CFTI says its aim is “to create demand for conflict-free tin from this region,” and to create “a prospect for economic development and regional stability.”  The company will use conflict-free tin for soldering phone components at the assembly stage.

    Reading this may answer your question: 

    From the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI) in the Netherlands:  http://solutions-network.org/site-cfti/  (this link is in the article, too)

    The CFTI supply chain is a conflict-free design, piloting new tracking and tracing procedures to ensure the conflict-free status of the supply chain. Following the conflict-free testing phase of the pilot, the initiative will address other mine-site sustainability issues.

    Conflict free tin shipped

    To support responsible sourcing and economic development in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), industry partners convened by the Dutch government have started a conflict-free tin sourcing program in the province of South Kivu on 24 October 2012. This program demonstrates how the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas can be implemented on the ground with positive results.

    Up till now the project has been a great success with more than 200 tonnes of material produced and seven shipments on its way to the smelter, with an approximate value of USD 1.7 million. Prospects are the first material will leave the smelter in the end of March and find their way to end users committed to the Conflict Free Tin Initiative.

    The situation at the mine site has changed substantially; at the start of the project employment rates were low at less than 100 creuseurs, but currently the mine site offers jobs to about 1200 artisanal diggers. Moreover, the income of miners has more than doubled from USD 2 to USD 4 – USD 6 per kilo, depending on the quality of the tin and the world price. Due to the increased cash flow in the region, women networks have started saving to buy products which they can sell to the miners in order to support their families. Furthermore, working conditions and the security situation at the mine site has improved since local cooperatives buy equipment such as helmets, boots and water pumps for the miners and stabilize mineshafts with wooden piles in order to prevent accidents.

    An interesting side effect of the project is the formalization of the sector. Transparency allows the Congolese government to tax the materials sourced.

    The intended outcome of the pilot is to gain insight into tracking and tracing systems and identify opportunities for expansion, sending a market signal that companies can source conflict-free minerals from the Eastern DRC. A successful initiative will lead to more formalized mining, increased employment for artisanal miners, and a prospect for economic development and regional stability.

    Royal Philips, Tata Steel, Motorola Solutions, BlackBerry, Alpha, AIM Metals & Alloys, Malaysia Smelting Corporation Berhad (MSC), Traxys, Fairphone and ITRI are committed to participate in the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative. The Initiative welcomes all companies, including mines, smelters, component manufacturers and product manufacturers (end-users) to join, and its success will be largely measured by the industry participation in the closed-pipe supply system.

    At a time when many companies have shied away from purchasing minerals from the DRC, CFTI provides a way to source responsibly from the region. According to Sasha Lezhnev of NGO the Enough Project, “Consumers across North America and Europe are demanding electronics and other products that contain conflict-free minerals from Congo, and this joint initiative is showing leadership by sourcing minerals from a conflict-free mine in eastern Congo. Minerals must be transparently traded, so that exports fully match production capacity, and consumers can be confident they are buying conflict-free products that help communities in Congo.”

    Susan

     

  25. Himanshugupta
    September 29, 2013

    Susan, did not read all the comments and grasp what is going on. So, you are basically on the same side as i am for Dual SIM. I think that Dual SIM is really neat feature and always wonder why not all smartphone provider enable this feature.

  26. Susan Fourtané
    September 29, 2013

    Himanshu, 

    Basically yes. I agree with you. If you read what I was discussing with Ashish now you know what I was trying to say. 🙂

    Sometimes I have wondered the same thing. I would very much like iPhones to have dual SIM capabilities. I have an English number, and a Finnish number (althought I don't have my phone working at the moment as I am on a year without a phone project), in which case a Dual SIM would be useful.

    -Susan 

  27. Susan Fourtané
    September 29, 2013

    Himanshu, 

    I forgot to say, sometimes it's very diffiucut to grasp what is going on just by one isolated comment without reading the previous conversation. 😀

    -Susan

  28. BenjiMac
    September 29, 2013

    Thank you for the information. I read the link you provided, as well as the “Conflict Minerals” article on Wikipedia.

    Apparently in the eastern DRC there is constant conflict between the official national government and the Congolese National Army and other “rebel” groups. Whatever group controls a mine does so by armed force, taxes the mine product, and arranges for sale of the product in order to support their group's existence.

    When the DRC official government controls a mine by the presence of their armed forces, tracks the mine product to its end users, and takes part of the profit to support their own existence and pay the troops, this is “conflict free”. When any other group does the same, this is “conflict minerals” that should not be used by international manufacturers. I really see no difference.

    However, I also do not see any benefit to the DRC mine-area people if we prevent them from having any income by not buying anything produced in the region. If one armed group is strong enough to actually keep the others out of some location, producing a stable situation where the miners can be better paid and worker safety improved (which any mining company would want anyway; a caved-in mine produces no wealth for anyone); then that is a better situation for everyone.

  29. Ashu001
    September 30, 2013

    Susan,

    If you say so-I will accept that .

    Just feel that it should'nt have been mentioned in the Main article in that case.

     

  30. Susan Fourtané
    September 30, 2013

    Ashish, 

    It's not a matter of accepting for the sake of it. We don't seem to see each other's point this time, and we are trying to see it, aren't we? 

    You say you don't see the Dual SIM should be part of the list of features because it's not sustainable. But a Dual SIM prevents you of the need of having two phones if you need one for work, and one for personal use. Or, if you need to have two SIM cards, one English, and one Finnish, for example. 🙂 

    Why shouldn't it have been mentioned? Not all the phones have a Dual SIM capability, have they?

    -Susan

  31. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 30, 2013

    I do think Europe is ahead of the US in terms of focus on sustainablity, @himanshugupta. I remember 20 or 30 years ago people were already in their daily lives worrying about, for example, reducing energy consumption and reusing bags, and such. WIth customers with that mindset, this would be a draw. I hope the US catches up though!

  32. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 30, 2013

    @BenjiMac, thanks for weighing in on this. As you outline below this is a complex issue. it's something that we need to watch over time… As you lay it out, it seems like a might makes right sort of situation. Also, as you said, the alternative is also not great. I wish there were easier answers!

  33. Susan Fourtané
    October 1, 2013

    Hailey, 

    “I do think Europe is ahead of the US in terms of focus on sustainablity” 

    This is true.

    -Susan 

  34. Susan Fourtané
    October 12, 2013

    BenjiMac, 

    Indeed, the conflict-minerals issue is not an easy one, and it's not one that will be solved from one day to another either.

    What I think is important is that someone, like the Fairphone team, is looking into it, trying to bring it to light, and maybe when people and other businesses acknowledge it a bigger movement could be started, right?

    -Susan

     

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