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Value Change in Action: Fairphone

Oct 24, 2020 | Value Change Examples

Why we should pay more attention to value change

In this series of post, we present examples of the relationship between changing values and changes in technologies, innovations and designs. These are not cases that we investigate in-depth in our project, but they do give you an idea of the relevance of our research.

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Amsterdam-based smartphone company Fairphone aims to change the electronics industry for the better by working with suppliers who follow fair production practices and keeping their supply chain transparent. Its eponymous smartphones – which are now in their third generation – are made from conflict-free components and assembled in factories where workers are guaranteed a decent wage. As the phones have a modular design, that allows end-users to replace broken parts easily, they are built to last, in turn, helping to reduce the number of electronics that end up in landfills.

Fairphone, as an organisation, started out in 2009 as a campaign to raise awareness of the electronics industry’s reliance on conflict-minerals. To raise funds for military activities, it is often the case that combatants in countries with conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, sell minerals extracted from mines they control to intermediates who then pass them on to companies based elsewhere in the world. Several of these minerals, including tin, tantalum and gold are needed to produce modern electronic devices and are found inside every smartphone currently on the market. This means that when companies manufacture and sell devices containing these ‘conflict minerals’, they indirectly contribute to the armament of militant groups.

Fairphone started production on its first phone in 2012 after conducting a fact-finding mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to gather insights from miners on how to improve mineral supply chains. For its first phones, and all of its other models since, the company worked with mining organisations who aren’t involved with military activities to support responsible mineral extraction in the region. The project garnered substantial public support after its announcement, and the first Fairphone models quickly sold out once they were released in the Autumn of 2013 – showing that there is a demand for ethically-produced consumer electronics.

Since launching its first phones, Fairphone has continued to work towards making its products as ethically-sound as possible. In regards to overseas assembly, the company works with partners in China who ensure their employees receive a living wage, have access to training opportunities and can give their input on how to improve working conditions. Aside from creating phones designed to last longer than its competitors’ thanks to their replaceable parts, Fairphone is involved in research efforts to reduce e-waste through recycling programs. Although Fairphone is clear in its reports that a lot to still needs to be done to guarantee that its products are entirely conflict-free, sustainable and overall fair, its successes demonstrate that it is possible to manufacture mobile phones in a socially-responsible manner.