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Mobile Technology

FairPhone - a smartphone for a good conscience

Smartphone manufacturers make profits worth billions, but little ever trickles down to the workers who make the devices. A Dutchman wants to change that.

What does the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have to do with cell phones? A lot - according to the people behind "FairPhone" say. They are working in the Netherlands to develop a smartphone that is not only technically innovative, but also made in a way that respects the principles of fair trade. That means it has to be sustainable, and the parts used to produce the phone must come from factories and mines with good working conditions, in places where the environment is protected. 

Numerous rare earth metals and other minerals, most of which are designated "conflict metals," are required to make smartphones. As the term implies, the metals come from places where civil war and human-rights violations are part of everyday life. Many of the metals are from the resource-rich DRC, where they are extracted in dangerous working conditions, in part by children. The profits are often used to buy weapons for armed militias.

Children working at a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Gwenn Dubourthoumieu)

Children work in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo

But the biggest producer of rare earths is China. Rare earths are mainly extracted using acid to wash the metals from wells, leaving poisoned mud. As a result, whole regions have been devastated and villages contaminated in China.

Manufacturers absolve themselves of responsibility

Due to the many middlemen, it's difficult for phone makers to know where the metals for their devices come from. But the claim is untenable that companies have no ability to trace the origin of the individual elements, says Johanna Kusch from Germanwatch, which has focussed closely on the issue of corporate social responsibility in the cell phone industry.

"Several studies have shown that it's possible to trace the resources to the mines," she adds.

The manufacturers only have to flex their market power more clearly.

That's exactly what Dutch entrepreneur Bas van Abel is trying to do with the "FairPhone." The first one is supposed to hit the market in the fall.

"It is an alternative for a growing group of aware consumers but it's also a way to prepare the industry and to inspire the industry to do [things] differently," he told DW.

It is clear to him that the project is only a drop in the bucket. But the growing demand for such devices could put pressure on the market leaders.

First order for the 'FairPhone'

So far, only Dutch mobile operator KPN has made a four-digit order of the fairtrade smartphone, which is projected to cost between 250 euros ($333) and 300 euros ($400) without a contract.

Staff members work on the production line at the Foxconn complex in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen (Photo: Kin Cheung)

FairPhones will be produced in China

Although there are frequently reports of bad working conditions in Chinese factories, in which, for example, Apple's iPhones are assembled, FairPhone has set up production in China. Van Abel believes the best way to change the system is by changing how things are done at the source of the problem. FairPhone aims to carefully select factories and use its influence as a buyer.

One step, with a big impact

That's a good start, says Johanna Kusch of Germanwatch. Since wages in factories where cell phones are produced are very low, she sees a lot of room for improvement: If two percent of the final cost of a cell phone went into wages, factory workers in China could earn 50 percent more, she says.

Still, the FairPhone won't be entirely fair trade. Too many people are involved in the production process, Bas van Abel admits. And that's why his claim will be to produce the most fair cell phone on the market.

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