Unfortunately simply discussing does not always change things. We still need people that stand up, do something and inspire others to do the same and spark a change in the way we think, act and also buy. There are brands with ‘conscious’ clothing collections, there is biological food and fair-trade coffee and now there is also a fair-trade mobile smartphone: Fairphone. “It’s all about opening up the supply chain, creating transparency.”
Unlike what you might be expecting (since some ‘eco’ products sometimes just do not look really attractive), the phone does not only put “social values first”, but also design and technological specs (Dual SIM, 8MP camera, Android system…). Three years ago the Amsterdam based company Fairphone started their campaign with the goal to create the world’s first completely fair smartphone. Now their mission actually created something tangible: an actual smartphone. Not 100% fair-trade, but designed and produced with placing people and social values first along the supply chain. Think of materials used, actual value and the deals with the different suppliers and workers involved and also the end consumers.
The company is at a crucial point in it’s short history: they recently re-launched their website, which now also includes a webshop. With 5000 pre-orders of the smartphone, they can start the production. With only 13 days left to reach their target (at the point of publishing they’re at: 3,724), we asked Tessa Wernink (Communications Director), Roos van de Weerd (Public Relations Manager) and Joe Mier (Community Manager) at Fairphone a couple of questions.
What made you get up and do something, instead of just talking about a fair supply chain and placing people first?
“Fairphone started three years ago as a campaign aimed at creating more awareness around the abuses in the supply chain of electronics. Our goal was to understand the system and see if things could be done differently if you produced a phone putting social values at the base of your mission. That made Fairphone both a storytelling artifact (our campaign), but also a real product that could function as a catalyst to change the way products are made and eventually positively influence an economic system based mainly on profit maximization.”
“Initially, we decided to set up our formal organizational structure as an NGO (non-governmental organization). We soon realized however that, despite shared values on creating social impact, the NGO structure was not a perfect model. Around the same time, we had been in talks with operators, who were willing to support us on both our mission and the sales and there were an increasing amount of people asking us when the phone would hit the market, so they could buy it. “Wow!”, we thought, but also “mmm, what’s next”. So far, we had been funded by the Dutch government and by social funds like Stichting DOEN, but what would it mean to actually create our own revenue?”
“We realized that this could be a very real possibility and given we were going to sell an actual product, being a company would be a more appropriate funding model. It would make it easier to market our product and generate money to reinvest in our long-term mission. So, that’s when we decided to set up a company, take seed money from an investor who understands our mission, and run it as a social enterprise: applying commercial strategies to maximize social impact. After all, we were going to be part of the economic system. Our goal has never been and never will be to maximize profits for external shareholders.”
I saw Bas van Abel’s (Founder, CEO) talk during PICNIC last year and it made me look at my phone and think about if I would be ready or willing to make the switch to your Fairphone. Are you satisfied with the number of people that signed up? Do you have the feeling that people are “ready”?
“At the moment, a dazzling number of 18000 subscribers are following the steps we take. But that is just the part that is interested, we have now sold 3,724 phones. That is a lot, but not yet the 5000 we need. We do get the feeling that for example countries like Germany and Austria are more ‘ready’ than The Netherlands or the UK. In Germany for example people are a lot more willing to actually change and to make a switch. You can feel this in criticisms, reactions we get, press attention, buzz on the internet. We don’t think people are totally ready yet, but the context is. That is as well the role we need to take, being a catalist for change. That might mean, making people first aware and then stepbystep towards “ready”.”
To me it is a bit like the discussion about living Vegan, or “at least” being Vegetarian – compared to consuming meat etc. but being aware of where it comes from and how it gets to your plate. Are you ok with people solely talking about your product and supporting you, but not buying the phone? Was part of your goal also to simply start the discussion?
“Of course! For us it is not so much about the phone as a product. The phone is a storytelling artefact, it is the journey and the destination. So, if it for some people only functions as a start for a bigger conversation and discussion, that’s perfect. We see it more as a movement, a kick-starter. But of course we also heavily depend now on a group of buyers to take the next steps, so to people not buying: join our newsletter and share with your friends!”
Looking at what happened in Bangladesh recently and in other countries; the discussion raised in the fashion industry lately – was it always about electronics for you? Or also setting an example for the consumer goods industry in general?
“The supply chain for the production of electronics is very complex and is therefore a great starting point to unravel the chain. It is also very difficult and creating a fair product in this industry almost requires creating a situation of world peace! But we think that a phone is also a good product because so many poeple use it and it is a great symbol of our connected world.”
So, how did you make it happen? How are you able to produce in a fair manner?
“Fairphone can also be seen a s a platform to bring best practices together. We aren’t only brokering parterships between stakeholders, but we are also using existing initiatives like CFTI (Conflict-free Tin Initiative) and Solutions for hope, that source tin and tantalum from conflict-free areas. This change can only be achieved by doing things together. We work with factories where a specially established fund will ensure decent wages are distributed amongst workers. We work with people that want to change, they can also be working for big companies. Like Vodafone, whose sustainability manager contacted us and with whom we are co-developing the eco-score. It’s all about opening up the supply chain, creating transparency. We for instance publish our bill of materials, our suppliers to make it easier to track and trace materials. From a consumer side, we want to offer people to put their own operating system on there, to change parts themselves, have Dual SIM capability…Taking into consideration the full lifespan of the product, we have joined existing e-waste programs, have a phone sell back program and offer spare parts of all crucial components through our sales channels.”
If we would only consider the technological aspect of the FairPhone, what would your sales pitch to our readers be? How would you convince people to make the switch – based on what the phone offers?
“The phone is smart and comes with “buckets full of karma“. We’re not just a bunch of do-gooders; we’re making a super cool, high-performance smartphone packed with features bound to impress.”
Some Fairphone specs:
- Dragontrail glass: Ultra thin and light; super durable and scratch-resistant
- Mediatek 6589 chipset: Quad core CPU for faster processing and page loading
- 16 GB internal memory: For music, movies, apps, games and more
- qHD display: 4.3 inches of touch-screen goodness
- Dual front/ rear camera: 8 mp + 1.3 mp for photos and video calls
How can you get one of your phones and how long does it take until you have it?
“At the moment only on our website. The pre-order campaign runs to the 14th of june, we need a 5000 pre-oders at that moment, so that we can go into production. When we make it, you will receive your phone in Fall, we expect shipping between september and november.”
Any other way people can get involved with your project?
“We are thrilled to have such a committed and talented community surrounding the Fairphone initiative and product, getting lots of inspiring e-mails and messages from people asking how they can help. Since this started as a very collaborative project we really depend on our community for feedback and input.When we talk to people who want to help, we usually ask what part of Fairphone they like the most, and how their personal or work experience can contribute to this area. At some point all of us currently working at the company were ‘part of the community’ so anybody can join if they’d like to and find a role that fits them. This could mean helping us build an online discussion platform for our community, or acting as an ambassador to the company and brainstorming events and places to spread the Fairphone story. We’ve had lots of people simply send us contact details to favorite newspaper or niche magazines, or written them themselves to get us in those papers.
“While we have quite a large online community (almost 15,000 on FB and 3,500 on Twitter), we’d also like to do more outreach offline at events. Imagine sending our ambassadors a little Fairphone care package with flyers and materials to get the word out that way. People can write our Community Manager Joe directly, if they want to help out in these offline or online ways.”
Anything else you would like to share?
“The phone costs €325,- including taxes. Profits will fund future interventions in the supply chain, funding a progressive model for change. If you, or people in your circle of friends want to support our campaign, please go to our site. Buy a phone, start a movement!”
Here’s a video to share and spread the word. Even if it is just to make people think…