Gizmag first took a look at the Fairphone in June during its successful crowdfunding campaign. For those not familiar, Fairphone aims to make the most ethical smartphone on the market. The company chose London Design Week to give backers a first look at a working prototype, and Gizmag popped into the company's pop-up shop in Soho to take a look. There are early signs that Fairphone may be as friendly as it is ethical.
The ethical aspects of the phone's design and, perhaps most crucially, its supply chain, are well documented at this point. The Dutch company is working with the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative and Solutions for Hope to ensure, so far as is possible, that minerals such as tantalum and tin used in the making of Fairphones (and other electronic devices) don't come from mines or through supply chains where profits fuel violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but from mines where workers are paid fairly.
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Workers at the Chinese factory where Fairphones are assembled work a maximum of 60 hours a week (not ideal, but a marked improvement over some of the alternatives). And Fairphone is donating a small cut of the profits to Closing The Loop, which works to promote the reuse and proper recycling of discarded handsets. The Fairphone isn't perfectly ethical, and the company doesn't claim otherwise, but there does appear to be a genuine attempt to make the phone as ethically as possible, and to strive for improvement.
Part of the company's strategy is to make a smartphone that is easy to use and repair as possible in order to maximize its working life. Its removable back cover may not be all that unusual, but the big friendly letters on the battery spelling out "This is your battery" certainly are, as are the instructions for seeking a replacement printed on the reverse.
And inside the phone itself are clearly printed instructions, telling you not only where to put your MicroSD and SIM cards (up to two of the latter, which is useful), but what those things actually do, which could prove helpful to many. Perhaps more impressive is the inclusion of Dragontrail glass, a material which is both light and damage-resistant, and typically reserved for premium handsets such as the Sony Xperia Z.
Should a Fairphone ever been in need of repair, the company tells us users will have two options. They will be able to ship the handset to the company for a repair job, or Fairphone will send out a repair kit with a link to online instructions for how to carry out the task yourself. Fairphone is intended to be a hobbyist-friendly device.
The final analysis of the Fairphone's friendliness will have to wait till after its launch, when users have had time to digest Kwame Corporation's take on the Android operating system being developed for the phone. Fairphone's Karien Stroucken explained to Gizmag that the object is to simplify the operating system to free up processor cycles and prolong battery life. Should these efforts prove successful, at €325 (US$440) Fairphone may yet prove one of the most cost-effective smartphones on the market, as well as the most ethical.
At the time of writing Fairphones are only available to preorder in Europe, with the first batch now due to ship in December. The Fairphone should open up to other markets, including the US, soon after.
Update, October 30, 2013: Though the information on working hours on China reflects that told to us by Fairphone at the pop-up shop, Tessa Wernink, Fairphone's Director of Communications, has sought to clarify the situation. Her statement follows:
"It is important to mention that Fairphone hasn't found the only fair factory in China, but we are working with a factory that shares our value proposition and committment to transparency, with whom we want to build a long-term relationship. But we are producing 25,000 phones, which is relatively little compared to other purchase orders. Therefore it is impossible for us to prove at this point whether the working hours are always at a maximum of 60/week. Of course, the advantage of our small production run is that we can oversee our production, but the aim is to drive sustainable change. Our first and subsequent production runs are to ensure continuous engagement with one factory, and therefore, we are looking at building long-term relationships (rather than chasing profit maximisation) and work together toward addressing and improving conditions around production. Our aim is to pay workers a living wage (for which we are engaging with partners who will see what the wages are in the area through a wage assessment tool), and are joining hands with experts in a working group to look at overtime and worker management dialogue. We have reserved 5 dollars of every phone (2,5 from Fairphone and 2,5 from Changhong) to go to a fund that invests in improvements for workers. More on our social assessment programme can be read on our blog in the coming weeks."
Further information: FairphoneView gallery - 8 images