Most smartphones are still difficult to repair—and even replacing the battery can be such a hassle that many people just decide to get a new phone when their battery dies. That’s a problem for the carbon footprint of the technology, since the components inside, like gold, tungsten, and cobalt, are energy-intensive to mine. The mines are also often fraught with social problems, from forced labor of workers to mine profits funding armed conflict.
Fairphone, an Amsterdam-based company, has been working to redesign a better smartphone for the past eight years. The latest model, the 5G Fairphone 4, goes as far as possible to source materials responsibly and make the phone repairable. Under a recent law in France that requires electronics to be labeled for repairability, the 8GB version of the new phone scored 9.3 out of 10; the iPhone 12, by comparison, scores a 6 out of 10.
“Thanks to the modular construction and spare parts, anyone can make repairs,” says Monique Lempers, impact innovation director at Fairphone, which worked with Above, a Swedish design firm, on the new model. The back, made out of 100% recycled plastic, pops off without any tools. Inside, components such as the battery, cameras, speakers, and USB port can be removed using a regular screwdriver. The pieces are designed to last, but if something breaks, the company offers spare parts under a five-year warranty. (The software will also continue to get updates over five years, so the phone doesn’t become obsolete.)
The company’s repairability requirements influenced how the phone was designed. “Our display is 6.3 inches large,” Lempers says. “You may think this is just a design decision, but the truth is that it has to do with spare parts availability. To ensure supply, we needed to choose a display size that is commonly used in the market to make sure we could get a long-term supply. With our five-year warranty, it means we need to have spare parts available for the next six years to come.” The design team also had to make other unique tweaks, like making a connector on the back long enough so that users don’t accidentally pull it apart when they open the phone to make a repair.
Because its battery is not glued in place, the Fairphone is thicker than other phones at a time when phone thinness is a major selling point in the market. “While we wanted to keep our device as thin as possible, we did not compromise on repairability and durability to drops,” says Filip Sauer, cofounder and CEO of Above. “So we made many different prototypes and carried out many design studies to end up with a well-balanced design that sits so well in your hand and feels sturdy and of high quality.”
The team worked with suppliers to find the best available materials, such as Fairtrade-certified gold, recycled tin, and conflict-free and fairly made tungsten. The company has a living wage program that pays workers a bonus for each Fairphone produced. Still, Lempers says, there’s a long way to go. The company plans to sustainably source 14 materials by 2023.
It’s currently working with suppliers to source fairly made silver, and working with partners to set up better labor practices for cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While recycled materials also need to be more widely used in new phones, Lempers says that new mining will still be necessary in the coming decades, and it’s important for the industry to find ethical models for it to continue.
The new design tweaks the looks and features of the phone to also make it more competitive with typical smartphones. “From a visual standpoint, we clarified and refined the modular story, and moved away from the hobbyist/hacker aesthetic of Fairphone 3, and designed the device as more approachable, inclusive, and encouraging,” Sauer says.
The phone ships in plastic-free packaging, with a box that’s designed to be reused to send back an old phone for Fairphone’s recycling program, which recycles e-waste for every phone that the company sells.
The company wants to help push the broader electronics industry to change. “Fairphone’s mission is to set the example across our own supply chain and products, using our market demand as a catalyst for continuous improvement,” Lempers says. “This, in turn, creates a positive impact for people and the planet while engaging with the wider consumer electronics industry to scale our impact. We encourage our peers in the industry to build on what we’ve learned. We want to inspire the rest of our industry to follow our approach to fair sourcing—to examine the potential for positive impact, and to join us so that we can, together, scale up the solutions that work. “