Daily Dose of iQ: Is Fairphone Fair or Foul?

We came across this new concept product today, called the Fairphone” (www.fairphone.com), which appears to be the smartphone equivalent of fair trade coffee -- particularly in its ethical” sourcing of rare metals and minerals used in its manufacturing. The makers of Fairphone are in the midst of accepting preorders to make the concept a reality (their goal is 5,000 units by June 13).

The Fairphone website features a promotional video explaining the motivation behind the device and what makes it different from conventional smartphones in today’s marketplace.

I sat down with three of my colleagues (Tony Burbage, Collin Prior and Chris Nicol) to get their take on this interesting new concept and phone.

1. At first glance, this looks more like marketing than the real thing,” hey? But a more important question is: What is the objective of this company and why might it resonate with consumers?

TB: The objectives of the company seem to center on creating a product manufacturing ecosystem that is both fair to people, and the environment. This is of course a fantastic mission, but it leads to a number of questions that demand answers (for examples, see the responses to Question #2). Right now it just seems like an idea. If they can convince consumers it’s really fair,” then people will really get behind a product like this.

If Fairphone can substantiate its claims to fairness,” people will get behind the product.

CN: I agree. The objective is to combat the corporate greed that drives conventional smartphone manufacturing, which occurs largely at the expense of people and the environment. Fairphone is looking to raise awareness of these realities, while producing a device that demonstrates an ethical alternative to phones currently on the market.

CP: This looks a lot like marketing to me. I think the product may appeal to customers who want to feel like they are doing good in the world. If the company hopes to make a phone that is competitive, however, they will inevitably need to rely on existing (many of which would be deemed unethical”) sources. For example, they state on their site that they chose to locate in China because the whole supply chain was in Asia.”

2. What questions still need to be answered for such a device to actually be fair”? How can this company demonstrate that it is sufficiently more fair” than established phone manufacturers?

TB: How could Fairphone foster a system of fair employment around the world and affect change among existing manufacturers? How will they use materials and production techniques that are proven to be environmentally friendly? Who’s to hold them accountable to their claims? How could they do all this and be sure they have a competitively priced product? How will they navigate the continuum between being an a) altruistic or b) profit-oriented company?

Bigger question: Is it possible to be both altruistic and for-profit?

CP: A number of things jump out at me: Replacable battery (Do you need it? Don’t lots of phones have that feature? Even if you need to replace it, does it have to be user replaceable?); E-waste Program (Most companies have that already, re: Cell Phone Trade-in Programs); Dual SIM (Have you been to Asia? Again, lots of existing phones have this, if it’s required). Rootable Operating System (Hello Android); Worker Welfare (Again, most companies are striving for this and can put much more pressure on their suppliers than a small company); Conflict Free Tin and Tantalum (This kind of depends on the concept of conflict” and fair trade.” China and the Congo are not exactly unequivocably fair labour/environmentally-friendly markets.

3. Fair trade products have carved out a niche for themselves in certain industries (e.g. food, coffee, cosmetics) but is there a place for them in high-tech manufacturing? Can you think of any other fair tech’ examples or success stories?

CN: Absolutely there is a place for them in high-tech, any time that people are being paid unfair wages to keep products cheap for consumers, or working conditions are ignored to increase production, there is a place for fair.” The problem becomes measuring what is fair versus unfair. It’s taken many years for the current fair trade products to create industry standards, auditing procedures and credibility so that consumers can recognize a difference. It will take a long time with tech too, but someone has to start somewhere. It won’t be perfect, but taking a different approach and shedding light on the topic is the only way to start.

TB: The Body Shop built an entire company around this idea. But I’m not sure I’m aware of any high-tech companies have built their entire model around this. It should be interesting to see what happens. I certainly hope it succeeds, and is not just a marketing idea, as it would be an amazing game changer for the good.

Imagine the marketing potential if Fairphone partnered with HTC or Google to create a fair and ecological device.

CP: I frankly think fair trade is probably more of a statement than an actuality. In general people like feeling connected to a product’s creators rather than having people in the middle. There is an idea that things cannot be fair if a large publicly-traded corporation is involved. While this might be true, I am not sure it always is. I am interested as to why an organization like Fairphone chose to go it themselves rather then trying to partner with an existing company to create change. Maybe they did and failed? Imagine the marketing potential if, say, the Fairphone initiative partnered with HTC or Google to create and somehow certify a fair and ecological device. I don’t see these phones becoming mainstream; I’m not sure they can keep up technologically with existing devices. Phones are not yet like coffee beans or apples, which are roughly the same no matter who grows them. I have a feeling that people are generally more attached to the features on their phone than to the ethics behind them.