Fairphone founder Bas van Abel has won the Schwab Foundation's Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award. In a DW interview, he says his company's impact is much bigger than just the ethical green phones it sells.
Modern smartphone production is notoriously bad for the environment and many of the people who work along the supply chain. In 2013, Fairphone set out to change that with a phone that uses recycled raw materials instead of conflict minerals wherever possible. It is produced in factories with good working conditions and can easily be repaired to assure a longer lifespan than conventional smartphones. Now the company's founder Bas van Abel (pictured above) has been honored with the Schwab Foundation's Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award. DW met him in New York.
DW: In what sense does the idea of the Fairphone have something to do with social entrepreneurship?
Bas van Abel: I think in every aspect. For me, social entrepreneurship has to do with sustainability: On the one hand, making sure you look at the materials you use, longevity of the products but also at the impact it has in the supply chain on working conditions. You know, making a phone involves a lot of people in the world. There are so many components that go into a phone, made by thousands of factories. There are more than 60 minerals in there, being mined all around the world and not in very good conditions. So yes, you can make improvements in the supply chain of electronics and we do that with a phone.
What makes the Fairphone so different?
First of all, there is the design. We believe in designing the phone so you can use it longer. In terms of impact, think of this simple calculation: If you use your phone twice as long, you only need to produce half as many phones. That might not be good for your business model, if your business model is selling phones. Then you also have to rethink how to operate as a business and I think that is really core to social enterprises — that it is not just about putting as many products on the market as possible.
So we designed our phone in such a way that we can easily replace parts. The screen, for example. So if you drop the phone and the screen breaks, you can replace it yourself. That goes for all the components of the phone that might break over time. So we make it really easy for people to repair the phone and keep it longer. The effect of that is less waste, less production, and in the end it's more sustainable.
The other thing is the sourcing of raw materials. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example. We use conflict-free minerals from areas, which are prone to conflict. So we don't go to Australia and say, it's conflict free. We actually go to the Congo where we are active in setting up programs around improving working conditions and tracking and tracing minerals that we use in the phone. We do the same in Uganda.
Since its launch in 2013, Bas van Abel's Fairphone has won many awards including the German Environment Award, the UN Momentum for Change Award and the European Business Award for the Environment.
So what are the biggest challenges in producing this kind of phone?
The biggest challenge is the industry itself. We're a company operating in the same economic model as any other company. So you're going to be dictated the speed of change. In electronics, every year, every two years, there are components that go "end of life" as they call it. It's not because they don't work anymore or that people want to have new ones, it's just that companies want to push as many products as possible into the market.
The same goes for the marketing around it: We've been very good at marketing products that we don't actually need. And consumers buy stuff they don't actually need. Why do you need a phone every one or two years? You don't. You can call your mother, you can use WhatsApp. If your phone is 10 times faster, that won't make WhatsApp 10 times faster. So you have to look at it in a holistic way. It's not only the companies that have to change; the consumers have to change their behavior as well. We're suffering from electronic anorexia in a way. We want to have thinner and thinner phones. As a result, the batteries are glued into the phones to make them thinner, which makes it impossible to recycle them properly.
So as a consumer, you also have to consider that what you want as a consumer might not always be having the best effect on what's happening in the supply chain. And that is something we're not aware of because technology has been kind of dehumanized. What we try to do as Fairphone is put the human factor into technology again and to also show what's happening behind the scenes and why certain decisions are made, also related to consumer behavior.
But still 150,000 phones aren't that many compared to phones being produced by other companies. How can you have an impact?
You're right, 150,000 phones is not a lot in the bigger picture, although, it's a lot considering that we're a very small company. But in terms of the impact that we have. We scale by having a broker position. We don't want to point fingers and tell other companies what they're doing wrong. We work together with the industry and I see Fairphone as a platform. We create a platform for other companies to think about sustainability, to have a more mature debate about the dilemmas you run into as a company in terms of sustainability because we run into those issues ourselves. That puts us in a position, where we can drive the agenda in terms of what needs to happen on the ground.
Another example of how we scale things is a collaboration we have with an Austrian printed circuit board manufacturer. The circuit boards are what you put all the components on, and they use gold to make these boards. And their factories for that are in China. They also produce for all the other big brands. We are the first ones that actually used certified fair-trade gold from Peru in that factory to print the circuit boards. But as a result, they switched to using the fair-trade gold for the entire production. So without even knowing it, the phone brands that you know, are actually also using fair-trade gold now because we put that into the supply chain.
Bas van Abel is Founder and CEO of Fairphone. Prior to founding Fairphone, he was Head of Waag Society's Open Design Lab. The interview was conducted by Manuela Kasper-Claridge, and has been edited for length and clarity.