The most popular phones in the world — the Samsungs, Apples, HTCs and Sonys — aren't always manufactured in the most ethical ways. Tantalum, for example, is an integral ingredient in the capacitors inside your smartphone; it's a rare element that is only found in high densities in a few places on the earth's crust. One of those places is Congo, where armed conflict and civil war means tantalum mining is a deadly, slave-driven process.
There are plenty of laws around the use of conflict minerals in manufacturing, but complex supply chains, middlemen and backroom deals mean that these laws aren't always transparently followed. Even the manufacturing process is often imperfect, with Chinese workers' wages and living conditions constantly under question.
One smartphone startup wants to avoid any chance of unethical components, and the follow-up to its debut handset is about to be built.
The Fairphone, originally released as a batch of 25,000 phones in November of last year, sold out completely within a few months of the beginning of manufacturing — every phone had a buyer before anyone had even seen the final production model. There's a new production run about to start, with an estimated 40,000 expressions of interest from customers around the globe.
Fairphone is asking these 40,000 — and any other interested parties — to more definitively express their interest and confirm that they would pay 310 Euros plus shipping for a re-released handset. This guaranteed cash goes towards re-tooling the Chinese factory production line, and sourcing a long list of ethical components from Fairphone's approved suppliers.
What is out of the ordinary is that the new Fairphone batch has almost identical specifications to the original, apart from a very slight chipset upgrade from Mediatek's entry-level MT6589M to the regular MT6589. This is because the Fairphone Foundation put a lot of work into certifying the companies behind each of the components in its First Edition phone, and it's confident these standards are still being respected.
A new, upgraded Fairphone is in the works for a 2015 release, but lots of work has to be done — new companies have to be audited, supply lines and worker conditions inspected. There's a lot of work that goes into ensuring that a piece of technology is ethically produced, and an expansion of the Foundation's "ongoing social and environmental projects" is planned as well.
The Fairphone doesn't exactly have class-leading specifications, but what the social enterprise is pushing is the peace of mind that your new smartphone isn't doomed to planned obsolescence, and that it's produced by humans that are happy and appropriately compensated for their efforts. [Fairphone]