Fairphone are promoted as the sustainable smartphone. TTL’s Ann Link explains why she decided to get one.

I have tended to minimise the impact of my phones by buying very few! Since my aged mother persuaded me to have one in 1999, I have had four, counting the new Fairphone. The second is still with me, a very retro Nokia, on its second battery, and OK if you know its limitations, and can read the now very worn soft buttons. Then in 2017, I thought I should come up to date a bit, and I considered getting a Fairphone then, but felt I didn’t know enough about any type of phone to spend over £400 so I bought a basic smartphone instead.

The smartphone had been recommended by Which?, but is fiddly and counterintuitive. I hadn’t really understood the implications, which I didn’t especially like, of carrying a whole computer in my pocket, when I really only wanted an emergency phone with some extra features. But away on holiday, it was nice to have BBC Sounds and listen to the radio. It’s also useful as a satnav. And at least I see some Facebook, and keep up with relatives. I still prefer to do most things on the laptop – it seems more human-scaled for my interaction with the internet. As time has gone on, this smartphone has turned out to have little memory, and I suspect it constantly fills up with bloatware from Google.

So I was due for a new phone, which I would have felt guilty about, given my old ones still work. But the Phone Co-op came up with an offer on the new Fairphone and my birthday was imminent, so I went for it. I had heard a little about Fairphones but I’m only belatedly understanding what an inspirational effort it has been by people who started a campaign to address conflict minerals (minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, and sold or traded by armed groups) who then realised the solution was to manufacture their own phone.

Ethical Consumer says: “a smartphone is about 40% metals, 40% plastics and 20% ceramics and resin. As well as the ‘conflict minerals’ tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold, phones also contain silver, nickel and lead in the circuit board; cobalt, zinc and copper in the battery; as well as arsenic, chromium and selenium, all of which can leak during production and disposal. Unless recycled metals are used, they must all be mined, and this can mean communities are displaced, biodiversity destroyed, and vast amounts of water and fossil fuels are used for processing and extraction.”

Far ahead of any other phone
The Fairphone is produced by a social enterprise in the Netherlands. It aims to have the lowest possible environmental impact, to avoid conflict minerals, and to have fair pay and conditions along its whole supply chain. The founder has said that this has been achieved for gold, tin and tantalum and tungsten but that the phone should still merely be described as “fairer”. However, it is far ahead of any other phone, according to Ethical Consumer’s phone shopping guide. The process for producing tungsten is especially a message of hope that conflict-free and sustainable precious metals can be achieved.

The difficulty of establishing a clear supply chain for the gold, however, is revealing. All the Chinese component suppliers source their gold from the Shanghai Gold Exchange, and the supply chain could not be traced beyond that. So Fairphone buys an equivalent amount of certified fairtrade gold, and sells this onto the exchange to replace what they have bought.

The plastic that is used in the handset is recycled, and Fairphone will take your old phone for recycling. The phone is modular, which means that separate parts can be replaced, thereby extending its life as efficiently as possible. A small screwdriver even comes in the package to let you replace components. For its price, the Fairphone isn’t regarded as especially good, but it has improved more than its rivals.

Since I’ve only just taken ownership of my Fairphone, it may take a few more weeks to ascertain how well it does what I want. But the simplicity of its design makes me hopeful. I’ll report back soon. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from anyone else’s experience of Fairphones. Share your thoughts in the Comments below.