Bas van Abel leads an innovative electronics company. But, unlike Apple or Samsung, he’s not particularly interested in the latest voice activation or finger-swiping technology. No. He’s keener to see disruption in the back-end: in the mines producing minerals like tin and tantalum, the factories that make phones, and the systems that recycle them.
Controversy has dogged the phone supply chain recently. Apple has been criticized for troubles at Foxconn, its enormous Chinese supplier. Campaigners like Global Witness and the Enough Project have shed light on African mines that fund warlords, and employ child labor (see also here). And, there are continuing stories about how e-waste recycling puts distant workers at risk, and pollutes the environment.
Van Abel, who is based in Amsterdam, thinks there’s demand out there for something different. Later this year, his company will start selling a phone that looks and acts much like other products—but comes with greater safeguards. FairPhone, which is a social enterprise that recycles profit for social ends, is sourcing minerals through nonprofit initiatives like the Conflict Free Tin Initiative and Solutions For Hope. It is choosing factories in China that meet high standards set by Labor Voices, an advocacy group. And it’s working with recycling groups, such as Closing The Loop. It wants to build a phone that fits "circular economy" principles, where valuable materials are easily extracted after-use, and repurposed.
Van Abel got the idea while working at a research lab. A nonprofit asked how it could raise awareness of conflict minerals, and Van Abel felt the standard answers were inadequate. "We thought, the best case scenario was that we could make people angry. But then what? Actually, there is no alternative for people to take. You can choose green energy and fair-trade chocolate. But you can’t choose a phone with a better vision on ethics. So we said: 'why not just make this phone?'"
Van Abel strongly believes in the maker’s credo, "If you can’t open it, you don’t own it." So, unlike other phones, you can easily get inside the FairPhone to change something, or recycle its components. It has normal screws, and you can replace the battery, and put in more memory and dual-sim cards, if you want them.
FairPhone initially planned a fully open-source phone, based on something like Ubuntu. But it eventually went with Android, a sort-of open source OS, because it wants to concentrate on the supply chain side of things. "A lot of stuff we are going to use is off-the-shelf technology, because we don’t want to take the risk in developing technology. Our main goal is to come up with interventions in the supply chain."
He doesn’t claim it’s a top-of-the-range phone. But he does say it’s better than good enough. The only serious difference from an iPhone, he reckons, is the graphics capacity. You might struggle to play a 3-D rendered game on the FairPhone, for example.
It will cost about 300 euros ($390), and be available through carriers such as KPN, in the Netherlands, as well as at FairPhone’s web site. The initial production run is 10,000 phones, while FairPhone proves there is a market (the U.S. may come later).
Above all, Van Abel sees the device as a storytelling medium to explain supply chain issues. He describes it as a "political artifact" to push people to see connections between our production and consumer systems.
"My whole goal with this project to create a different relationship between makers and consumers, designers, and the supply chain. By understanding how all these things relate, we are able to take action to change this. If the company becomes very rich, then it means we can invest into new interventions in the supply chain, so it can become more and more fair. If you buy a phone, you are investing in those interventions."