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How fair is your phone?

Last month, Samsung confirmed that its phones contain tin from Bangka Island, Indonesia. According to Friends of the Earth, tin mining on Bangka depends on child labour, destroys tropical forests and coral reefs, and kills an estimated 150 miners every year.

Samsung has now publicly committed to helping find a solution to the situation on Bangka. Although it is far from the only company to source tin from the island, its competitors – including Apple – have so far stayed silent.

Febri Andika, a young tin miner, searches for tin ore at a mine in Belo Laut village.

A young tin miner on Bangka. Source: Ulet Ifansasti/Friends of the Earth

Mobile phones contain more than thirty different kinds of minerals and metals. Given complex global supply chains, it’s almost impossible to guarantee that your phone doesn’t contain minerals from regions like Bangka and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where metals like tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold are mined by forced labour and help fund brutal militias.

What can companies do about it? The key is not to stop sourcing from these areas. In the DRC, where 82% of the population is considered unemployed, mining supports tens of thousands of people. Instead, companies need to map out their supply chains, and work to find industry-wide solutions. Initiatives like Solutions for Hope, a pilot initiative launched by Motorola to source conflict-free tantalum from the DRC, are a good start. Yet according to NGO Global Witness, phone makers are among companies lobbying against new US laws on supply chain due diligence.

This week, the Fairphone project began taking pre-orders. It may be starting small, but the project has big ambitions. Aiming to create a “smartphone that puts social values first”, Fairphone will start with conflict-free tantalum and tin, and is working towards sourcing conflict-free tungsten and Fairtrade-certified gold and cobalt. It also aims to pay workers a living wage, be transparent about suppliers and pricing, use recycled materials and make the phone as adaptable and recyclable as possible, perhaps eventually becoming fully “closed loop”.

Buying more stuff seems like a counter-intuitive way to reduce your impacts, especially on the environment. But Fairphone is definitely a step in the right direction, and looks likely to meet its target of 5,000 pre-orders. High-profile network partners already include Vodafone, O2/Telefónica and KPN.

Phone makers should be watching with interest.

Comments (2)

  1. Jana Gebauer says:

    … and I’d like to add: Phone users should be watching with interest, too. As we can learn from the Better Place case of e-mobility: Any change of production patterns needs to be accompanied by respective changes in consumption patterns. So, anyone who is thinking of bying a mobile phone should seriously think of turning to suppliers-to-be like Fairphone.

  2. Martin Ashford says:

    It would / will be interesting to see just how much “fair” sourcing adds to the cost of a product like a phone. Instinctively one thinks “oh it will be at least twice as expensive as normal” but if the example of fairtrade produce (coffee, bananas…) is anything to go by then the real premium may be a lot less.

    Of course, Fairphone has the added handicap of low volume production; but imagine Samsung or Apple committing to not buying from mines employing slave labour etc. Would the extra cost of the materials really be so much? I suspect not: when manufacturing and production people have set their minds to paring every last cent off the cost of components, the converse is that ethical sourcing may add back only a few dollars onto the consumer price. Let’s hope so!

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