Fairphone wants the world to choose ethical smartphones

Fair trade coffee, hormone-free meat, and hybrid cars. Those are just a few of the trends in ethical consuming these days. But now, there's a push to add your smartphone to the list of so-called "ethical" products available to consumers.

Smartphone aims to use conflict-free minerals, improve conditions for workers

Tungsten mined in Rwanda. The metal is used in the production of some smartphones. (Fairphone)

Fair trade coffee, hormone-free meat, and hybrid cars.

Those are just a few of the trends in ethical consuming these days. But now, there's a push to add your smartphone to the list of so-called "ethical" products available to consumers.

The Dutch company Fairphone produces a smartphone that looks like many others, but contains components sourced from what it says are ethically-sound mines.

That means the Fairphone avoids using "conflict minerals" — those which are mined in conflict zones, such as Congo, which has been in a state of civil war since the 1990s.

The trade of materials such as tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold — all used in the production of smartphones — often generates profits for armed groups in such conflict areas, and therefore prolongs conflicts, according to nongovernmental organizations.

Fairphone primarily uses minerals from Congo, but says it can trace its supply chain to ensure the materials are conflict-free.

The company also says it promotes fair labour conditions for the workforce along its supply chain, and that its phone is designed to be easily repaired an upgraded — thus extending the phone's lifespan, and reducing electronic waste.

All of which is a good start, according to Steve Young. He's an associate professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo. He also works with the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative, a global push to source conflict-free metals that go into our devices.

He said the Fairphone is an important project, since the ethical issues around electronics can be difficult to grasp. For example, he said many people don't make the connection between their smartphone and the work of a miner who extracts the materials used in the phone's components.

"Those connections are hard to see," he said. "And I think this actual Fairphone concept is trying to connect those dots."

Phone's arrival could suggest how interested Canadians are in ethical electronics

So far, the phone seems to be connecting with people. The original Fairphone sold 60,000 units in Europe, even though it isn't as light or speedy as the devices many of us currently use.

The front and back views of the Fairphone 2. (Fairphone)
Fairphone is now releasing an updated phone, and hoping it will take off too. For now, it's only available in Europe, but the company plans to expand elsewhere next year — including Canada.

Once that happens, Young thinks we'll find out how interested Canadians are in supporting ethical electronics.

"Is society interested in pulling those issues through the products that they purchase?" he asks. "The Fairphone is symbolic of that, in that their first phone was successfully sold, it was developed and sold. And their second phone is much more ambitious, and they sold out on a Kickstarter campaign."

Apple, Intel also making ethical improvements

Young also said the Fairphone has bigger companies taking note. He says Intel and Apple are both making improvements in sourcing minerals from conflict-free areas.

But the biggest problem for companies and for consumers might be trying to sort out what exactly is ethical when it comes to smartphone manufacturing.

"Not all the tantalum, for example, or tungsten or tin is coming from conflict areas," said Young, referring to materials frequently used in smartphone production.

"And part of the challenge for the companies that are trying to do the right thing is to distinguish the material that isn't associated with conflict or human rights from material that is coming from areas that are at risk."

While the at-risk area most frequently mentioned is eastern Congo, Young says there are mines all over the world in similar positions.

But Fairphone says that just getting people to think about ethical issues in electronics is part of their mission, calling their phone "a storytelling device that provides a useful metaphor for complex, interconnected supply chains."

It remains to be seen if North American consumers will buy into that vision — there's no word yet on when the Fairphone may arrive here, or what it will cost.

Currently, the Fairphone 2 retails for 525 euros — about $780 Cdn.