Dutch start-up Fairphone demonstrates that sustainability and consumer electronics do mix.
It’s easy to forget that smartphones frequently become controversial devices. Every few months, a new outrage ignites over accusations of either sweatshop practices or the use of conflict minerals.
In that context, repairability can appear to be a second or third-order issue, but it feeds into growing concerns about the accumulation and disposal of electronic waste, particularly its environmental and health impact on developing economies.
Dutch start-up Fairphone aims to tackle all of these issues in a single device. Its contention is that you can mass-manufacture well specified handsets while maintaining full and ‘ethical’ control of the supply chain. Then, from a design point of view, it wants to show that you can build these handsets in such a way that they can not only be easily repaired but also upgraded.
Deliveries of Fairphone’s second-generation handset - one where it took even more control over sourcing and development than for the first - began at the end of 2015.
Short of cold-calling all the company’s suppliers, it is impossible to confirm that its claims of a largely clean supply chain are beyond question. However, at the blog on its website (www.fairphone.com), Fairphone certainly does go much further than most rivals in documenting its attempts to verify its sources for materials such as tin, tungsten, copper, gold and tantalum, as well as working conditions at suppliers.
Easier to assess are the company’s commitments to repairability and modular design within specifications a typical user would expect.
Specifications first. The Fairphone 2 is based on a quad-core 2.26GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor - the caveat that needs making here is that this SoC was a top-of-the-range component in 2014 handsets but has since been overtaken. However, it is still muscular silicon.
On a lot more positive notes, the F2 has 4G LTE capability (dual-SIM), as well as Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. It runs Android 5.1 Lollipop as the operating system, has 32GB of onboard flash memory and 2GB of RAM. Cameras are 8MP (rear) and 2MP (front), and the 5-inch display runs full HD at 1080x1920pi resolution (446ppi).
In keeping with the design philosophy, the F2 has a microSD memory extension port and a replaceable 2420mAh battery.
In short, this is at the upper end of specifications for a mid-range smartphone. The contract-free price, around £380, is arguably a bit higher than you might expect but sustainability does have a price.
Before going into the design teardown, we need to note that iFixit and Fairphone have an alliance, with the former supplying replacement parts and repair guides for the handset company’s hardware. Even so, there are enough strong features in the Fairphone 2 to consider iFixit’s rare 10 out of 10 rating pretty fair. The most significant quibble must be that, as is so often the case, the glass (an often broken feature on mobile devices) is fused to the display, requiring both to be replaced in the event of damage.
It’s not just the simplicity of the phone’s design that gets your attention - although the fact that both the battery and the display unit can be snapped out without any recourse to tools puts us in hens’ molar territory compared with the latest iPhone, Galaxy or Nexus handsets.
Immediately readable as you snap off the rear translucent case are the words, “Yours to open. Yours to keep.” And should you need to do that, all the PCBs are attached with 5.5mm Phillips or more specialised - but still ‘standard’ - Torx T5 screws.
Beyond that, several of the boards are marked with icons pointing out their main functions (headphone assembly, camera, microphone etc) to quickly identify them should they need replacing or upgrading. Together with the battery and display, the boards are among seven lift-out-and-replace modules within the phone. Even within the modules, some specific components - all traceable to standard supplier part numbers - can be replaced individually.
Fairphone’s disruptive goals do not end with repairability though. By progressively offering new and better modules via its own site and resellers like iFixit (an outer case that adds NFC payment is said to be on the roadmap), the company is marketing its second-generation model as having a five-year lifespan. The typical smartphone refresh cycle is 12-18 months.
That last point arguably crystallises Fairphone’s biggest challenge in promoting the sustainable smartphone as a mainstream product. Together with its promiscuity-promoting dual SIM ports, that five-year target stands in opposition to the European network operators’ model of subsidising handsets, so they can get you to first sign and then - with frequent hardware upgrade offers - maintain multi-year contracts.
For all its laudable intentions, the Fairphone will look like a niche player if your local network will happily offer a similarly specified device from an established player for £100 or less. After all, if most users have not worked out by now that buying unlocked handsets is often much cheaper over time, when will they ever do so?
Nevertheless, the Fairphone 2 is a robust answer to some valid criticisms of contemporary consumer electronics design. There is another way - and even where supply chain abuses are resolved, disposable hardware still feeds an ever-growing mountain of e-waste.
You find yourself wanting the Fairphone 2 to make a difference not just because it’s a good idea, but also because it’s a very well executed one.