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Creating Sustainable Cell Phones

A social enterprise company committed to minimizing cell phones’ impact on the environment, Fairphone is one consumer electronics firm that takes the responsibility of reducing its carbon footprint very seriously.

As mobile phones became a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, little thought was given to what would happen to those devices when they became obsolete, were replaced, or simply broke. Now, as more consumers demand to know that the products they buy are truly sustainable, manufacturers are going back to the drawing board and figuring out how to make products that have smaller (and preferably, no) carbon footprints.

Fairphone is one technology company that’s making strides in this direction, and that’s working to prove what the world really needs is a sustainable smartphone alternative. The third generation of its phone, the Fairphone 3, builds on the company's previous achievements to deliver  a durable device that closes the gap between performance and sustainability, the company said in a press release.

Differentiating the Fairphone 3 from other phones on the market is a modular architecture that’s designed to be sleeker and slimmer in design; supports easier repairs; and lasts longer than other devices. The device also boasts long battery life, a high-performance processor, and longer overall life. The latter helps save 30% or more on CO2 emissions over the phone’s lifetime, the company reports.

According to Forbes, the phone is built in a modular way, making it easy to repair and replace components, and thereby extending the phone’s lifespan. Furthermore, materials are sourced from sustainable sources. It is, for example, the first phone manufacturer using Fairtrade certified gold. And Fairphone takes precious care of the rights, wages, and working conditions of workers in its Chinese factories. “This makes it the most sustainable and ethical phone manufacturer on the planet,” Forbes adds.

Conserving Energy

According to Fast Company, research has shown that just buying a new phone uses about the same amount of energy as using an older phone for 10 years. More specifically, where the Information and Communication Industry (ICT) represented 1% of the carbon footprint in 2007, it’s already about tripled, and is on its way to exceed 14% by 2040. That’s half as large as the carbon impact of the entire transportation industry.

In the new phone, five materials—tin, plastic, gold, tungsten, and copper—are partially derived from what Fairphone has deemed “ethical conditions”. The company also sets its own standards for what counts as a “fair” material and utilizes recycling. For example, the Fairphone 3’s tin, plastic, and copper are about 50% recycled, the publication reports. 

In addition to addressing these five materials, Fairphone is also tackling three others: cobalt, lithium, and a rare earth metal called neodymium. By the end of 2019, the company says that 40% of these eight “goal” materials will be ethically sourced or recycled, Fast Company points out. The goal is to hit 70% fair sourcing for all eight of these elements by the end of 2020.

Making a Difference

Fairphone’s commitment to sustainability goes beyond just the materials that go into its phones. The company also prides itself in continually making its supply chain “fairer” for all links in the chain. For example, it collaborates with its final assembly partner Arima to improve employee satisfaction. From the materials perspective, the company’s phones are made with responsibly-sourced and conflict-free tin and tungsten, recycled copper, and plastics, the company adds.

Taking one component at a time, the Fairphone team has been working with charities and government bodies on the ground to verify that the minerals they source come from mines that operate safely and ethically, Sonia Zhuravlyova reports in In good supply: ensuring ethics in the mobile phone supply chain”.

At Fairphone’s factory in China, the company asks workers about their needs, then offers the factory a financial incentive for meeting those needs. Fairphone and Arima have committed $100,000 annually (for three years) to factory improvements based on employees’ input. Combined with its sustainable sourcing efforts and overall commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, the company is leading the charge for consumer electronics companies that want to make a difference.

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