In 2011, Bibi Bleekemolen she met Fairphone founder Bas van Abel and together they travelled to the DR Congo as part of a campaign to raise awareness for conflict minerals, using a mobile phone as a storytelling object. Since the inception of social enterprise Fairphone in 2013, Bibi has been working on impact and public engagement-a market for ethical consumption in the electronics industry.
Many people probably don’t know that obtaining some minerals used in the manufacture of mobile phones generates serious humanitarian crises in some countries. Which and where are those minerals and how do these situations arise?
There are challenging issues in many different mineral supply chains, but when we first started our company, we focused on the four recognized conflict minerals: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. These minerals are found in high concentrations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and surrounding countries. Mining in this region has contributed financing ongoing conflict, life-threatening working conditions, environmental destruction and many other abuses.
How does Fairphone manage to produce its smartphones with “conflict-free” materials? How is it possible to control the supply chain in these countries to ensure that the whole process takes place under fair working conditions and fair trade?
Fairphone works closely with a range of partners to find more responsible sources for these four minerals. This specific process is different for each mineral, but it always involves traceability schemes so that we know where the materials were mined and what happens to them throughout every step in the supply chain. However, to clarify a common misconception, “conflict-free” only means that the minerals don’t finance conflict. That’s why we’re now focusing on Fairtrade and similar programs that put a greater emphasis on improving wages and working conditions.
Nowadays, mobile phones are not designed to last more than 2 years. We are constantly changing our model for a more recent one, generating tones of technological waste that damages the environment. Where does this waste finish? What is the challenge for the recycling industry? What difficulties does it face?
Some of the electronic waste (e-waste) is properly recycled, some of it is simply thrown away and some of it ends up in e-waste dumps in countries like Ghana where people work in dangerous conditions to extract the valuable metals inside. So we’re working to collect e-waste in Ghana and neighboring countries, as well as Europe, to make sure it’s safely recycled. We aim to increase the use of recycled materials in electronics, and to reduce the industry’s reliance on mining. But we know that recycling also comes with its own environmental costs, and that some materials are more suited to reuse than others. It would be amazing to use resources in a completely circular way, but the industry isn’t there yet.
Your company designs modular smartphones that allow any of their parts to be replaced or repaired instead of the entire device. Is it easy to find the parts or spare parts in the market? How has it welcomed your phones?
We’re really proud that we’ve made a phone that’s easy to upgrade and repair – however, you can still only do it with select parts – not all of them yet! But indeed, keeping spare parts in stock has been challenging for us. There are many reasons for this, but one major issue is that manufacturers commonly discontinue parts after a few years. For some parts we had to estimate, order and pay for all the parts we might need in the future well in advance. For others, like the battery, we had to find new suppliers to manufacture what we needed.
Fairphone is an ethical company that allocates part of its incomes to social and sustainable projects, becoming a B Corp. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
While we’ve made a lot of progress in different areas, what we’re most proud of is being transparent about major issues in the industry and stimulating public debate around topics like material sourcing, product longevity and electronics recycling. It’s very rewarding to participate in open discussions with other players in the industry and work towards concrete, collaborative solutions.
In Sustainable Brands Madrid 2018 you will talk about ‘Building a Movement for Fairer Electronics’. Is it possible to be a socially responsible and profitable company in a sector with so much competition in prices and technological development?
We firmly believe that it’s possible to combine purpose and profits in a single company. However, as a small player, it’s hard to compete on price and technological advances. Happily, that’s not our primary goal. By making phones in a more ethical and responsible way, we’ve found our unique niche in the market. In the years ahead, we’re focusing on growing our company and expanding our community of Fairphone owners. There’s a clear demand for more sustainable products, and the more our company grows, the more positive impact we can make.