Would you want to set up FairPhone? January 14, 2014Posted by Tomboktu in Choice, Community, Employment Rights, Environment, Ethics, FairPhone, Human Rights, Technology, Workers Rights.
Who in their right mind would want to set up FairPhone? Obviously you can check out their site to find out who actually did set it up as a Dutch social enterprise, but would you want to?
Park, for a moment, the ‘fair’ bit and think about what is involved setting up a company to make a new smartphone. Smartphones are complex products, with chips, capacitors, resistors, glass, sensors, casings, displays, batteries, cameras, speakers, antennae, sockets and other bits and pieces that I don’t know about. And you’d need software. You would also need to design all of this, or get people to do that for you, and to set up or find a factory to make it.
If you did do it, you would be going into a market with big brands like Samsung, iPhone, Sony, Nokia, HTC, and so on, so you would need a pretty strong selling point to attract customers from the products offered by those heavy-hitters.
For FairPhone, that selling point is the ‘fair’ bit. But even that presents two challenges. First is that smartphones are not like bananas. It is simply not possible to get fair microchips, capacitors, resistors, glass, sensors, casings, displays, batteries, cameras, speakers, antennae, sockets and all of the other bits and pieces. The second challenge is more fundamental: what is a ‘fair’ chip, a fair capacitor, etc., anyway?
FairPhone decided that the starting point — and only a starting point — for them would be two things.
- They would choose the right materials for the phone, and specifically that the tantalum in the capacitors and the tin in the solder would be ‘conflict-free’, sourced in DR Congo but without aiding warlords.
- They would seek to worker representation and better working conditions for the Chinese workers assembling the phone
Deciding to get the phone made in China was itself something involved some thought, but that is where the industry is concentrated and they concluded that going elsewhere would do nothing to influence the standards for phone workers in the industry.
The project has been three years running. Like any start-up it hit snags. One ‘fun’ detail their production manager recounts is that the shut-down of the USA federal government last October caused a delay when they were undergoing the process of US FCC certification. That wasn’t the only delay, and the original planned distribution of the autumn slipped.
And so, on Christmas Eve, they were able to ship 1,000 phones to customer with the remaining 24,000 to be shipped in the weeks after that.
If had been you, you might feel some sense of achievement and be happy to go on your Christmas break, as the actual FairPhone team did. However, the internet didn’t take a Christmas break, and posters used the comments section on the FairPhone and Facebook blog to lay attack and complaint over the Christmas break and continuing into the New year’s break: the source code for the processor was not open source, the delivery delay was unacceptable, the chip was not the right one for interactive gaming, the information on shipping was inadequate, the phone wasn’t actually fair, if they wanted conflict-free tin then they should have got it from an Australian mines, the shipping company was the wrong choice, and on and on. And they did hit real problems — for example, the first set of phone for Swiss customers were not shipped when planned because that involves a different form of invoice for customs clearance which takes longer to produce, and the shipper did not have full capacity until after the new year.
The ‘come one, come all’ nature of the complaints was illustrated by a pair that came from opposite directions, one arguing that their communication on technical details and shipping showed they were no better than Apple, and another complaining that Apple’s production systems were in fact more ethical than FairPhone’s.
If I’d been running FairPhone, that barrage would have set my back. But they upped their communications, with daily updates on distribution. This, by the way, is from an enterprise that is already remarkably open and which provided a break-down of where every euro that the customer pays is spent.
And as I type, 11,048 phones have been shipped, 23,500 of the sold-out 25,000 first edition have been assembled, and 21,500 more have been ordered.
The truly daunting fact is not that they put up with the challenges but that are coming back for more. The little — a characteristic they stress — that they have achieved under the ‘fair’ heading is only the first step and they are planning to use the toe they have inserted in the door to try to shift the way in which our phones are made.