Changing the way mobile phones are made

Progress Namibia - Changing the way mobile phones are made
23 July 2018

Image: Miners in DRC showing minerals after two days in the mine pit. Source: Fairphone,

The mobile industry is a good example of how products are produced unsustainably and often highly unethically. A linear (instead of circular) economic model. I have had an iPhone 4 since 2015 - it was a hand-me-down. I find it very sad that we have made such strides in technology around mobile phones and yet phones are not developed to last - in fact - they have redundancy built in. Think of my iPhone 4. I cannot download any apps that I actually need (e.g. Skype) because my operating system is not upgradable. So with time the phone is slowly rendered useless. Then it ends up in the shelf, or in a landfill. Nowadays it should be more feasible to mine the elements out of cellular phones than mining them from the ground. Lets have a quick peek at the industry using iPhone as an example, starting with the 'conflict minerals'. For years, Apple was buying hand-mined cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo where brutal slave conditions and child labour reflect mining operations there. In Bolivia where the tin is supplied is not much better. To obtain about the 100g of minerals found in a single iPhone, miners have to dig, dynamite and chip their way through about 35kg of rock. Then there are the working conditions on the assembly lines in China. Apple buys the components (touch screen display, memory chips, microprocessors, etc) from a mix of countries like the US, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Then they get shipped to China, where they are assembled with very low cost labour. The entire industry is geared to make profit - so to be as cost-efficient and as cheap in producing as possible. It is also geared in a way that you are forced to buy new every few years. I have tried to keep my iPhone as long as possible, which has been a very frustrating ordeal. Finally, I have invested in a Fairphone, which is a company in Netherlands trying to change the industry one step at a time.

Fairphone tries to do things differently. They looked at the industry and felt that it needs to be changed. How to do this? From the inside. Develop a phone that the consumer can choose that is made through creating a positive social and environmental impact from the beginning to the end of the phone's life. It does this through four processes: creating a long-lasting design, sourcing fair materials, creating good working conditions, and reusing and recycling the product. Fairphone tries to design products that last, both in the original design but also making its repair as easy as possible. This is why they have made the world's first modular phone. They trace where the phone parts come from and create a demand for materials that are good for people and planet. They try and foster long-term relationships as the foundation for good working conditions, working closely with selected suppliers. They move a step closer to a circular economy by encouraging the reuse and repair of their phones. They have been very honest about the shortcomings and challenges that have come with this way of working. From the mines to the factories, the electronics industry is filled with unfair and unsustainable practices. It is a systemic issue. They are trying to make things better, but the industry is still far from perfect. We, as consumers, can support this process by creating more and more demand for fairer, ethical phones that are embedded in a circular economy.