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Environment

Fairphone creator: Success is a signal to industry

The Dutch entrepreneur who created the Fairphone is now among three winners of the prestigious German Environmental Prize. Bas van Abel explains the concept behind the phone, and what makes it environmentally friendly.

How does it feel to be awarded the German Environmental Prize for 2016?

Fantastic, I was running around the room jumping up and down. Really, it's a recognition to all those people who invested into making this possible.

How did the Fairphone come about?

It started as a campaign, actually. We thought: How do we get the story of conflict minerals to the consumer? This is difficult. We could have started a campaign with a petition, or we could have raised awareness - but then, what is the solution? What do you offer the consumer in terms of what the consumer can do?

My background is design, and I believe that through making stuff, you can change the system. So I thought, why don't we make a phone, and then find out what the relationship is between these mines and the products we use? And while we do that, we go through the whole supply chain - we see it as servicing the supply chain itself - and show the people what we're doing. And we ask ourselves, what can we do differently, how can we improve things? And then step by step, we maybe create a fairer phone.

What makes Fairphone 2 more environmentally friendly than other smartphones?

Fairphone CEO Bas van Abel (Fairphone)

Dutch entrepreneur Bas van Abel has a background in design

What we looked at is: How can we, with the design of the phone, make sure that people use their phone for a long time? Because the biggest environmental footprint of the phone is in production.

So if we can help people use their phone twice as long as they did before, you only need to produce half the amount of phones, and that would be a huge difference. So we really focused on extending the life cycle of a phone.

We made the phone robust - so if you drop it, it doesn't break right away, you can keep it longer. But also if the phone does break after two or three years, you can replace it yourself - so we made the phone repairable.

And a third aspect is that through the design of the phone, we tried to encourage a relationship between people and product. You can open it, you can repair it. If people have a relationship with the product, and know where it's coming from, they are also inclined to use it for a longer time.

So you've created a product that is long-lasting. Where do you source your materials? And how do you ensure each material is sourced responsibly?

A phone is not a banana, it is a very complex product. For example, the Fairphone includes more than 1,200 components made in factories all around the world, and more than 40 minerals - so you're talking about thousands and thousands of players. You basically have the whole world in your pocket.

That means you have to focus on certain areas where it's most important to get improvement. For us, this was the conflict minerals that were being mined for example in Eastern Congo, where millions of people have died mining the minerals we use in our mobile phones. We work with mines in Eastern Congo where we are sure that there's conflict-free mining for tin, tungsten in Rwanda - but we also have gold from Peru which is fair-trade.

Beyond being conflict-free, you really make sure that there are also environmental programs in the mines, and we do that together with fair trade and fair mining programs.

How do you encourage users to recycle and reuse the Fairphones and their parts?

The whole idea is that they send back the modules. If you break the screen for example, you can order a new one. So you get the new screen module, place it in the old phone, and send back the old module.

Modules of the Fairphone 2 (Fairphone)

The Fairphone's modular construction is key to making it last longer

How long does the Fairphone 2 last?

The aim is five years, so that means including possible repairs. But obviously, it hasn't been on the market for five years, so there's no proof for this. We put effort not only into the components, but also the software, into making sure there's an open-source environment to keep updating the operating system.

For the Fairphone 2, all the components we put in are higher-end and have better specs, to where processor is not slow after a year and you can't use any apps anymore. We went to a high-end phone to keep the device in service for a longer time.

Critics point to the fact that Fairphones are manufactured in China. What do you say to this?

It's unavoidable, because most of the supply chain will take place in China. We really want to go to the core of the system, follow how it works, try to service it, and try to think about solutions for the problems that we're facing in that system. Then step by step, we can try to find solutions.

For example we're working with fair-trade mechanisms in China, where we pay premiums on the phones being made to the factories where there are democratic elections. 

Your company has relied largely on crowd-funding. How successful is your business model?

Pretty successful, I would say. What [our successful crowd-funding campaigns] really show is not only that the business model works for Fairphone, but also that there is demand, a need for people to really create that change in the electronics supply chain. And I think that's a really strong message for the whole industry.

Bas van Abel is Fairphone founder and CEO, and a winner of the 2016 German Environmental Prize.

Interview: Charlotta Lomas

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