Fairphone creates positive social and environmental impact from the beginning to the end of a phone’s life cycle

Consumer electronics are often viewed as semi-disposable objects, to be upgraded or discarded as soon as something better comes along. Fairphone is fighting against a market trend where the average phone is replaced every 18 months, creating a substantial environmental impact. As technology advances rapidly, consumers are losing the ability to modify, repair, and truly understand how they can keep their devices longer.

Fairphone is a social enterprise with the mission to inspire the rest of the industry to behave more responsibly by producing and marketing a smartphone; creating a more sustainable supply and demand in four main areas: material, design, working conditions and recycling. Fairphone had scored many achievements in these areas since 2013 when it was established, from the provision of a living wage to partners factory workers, the design of fully repairable modular devices, the proposition of a service business model, to the integration of recycled plastics and Fairtrade gold.

Driving the transition towards a sustainable supply chain of Tin

In the matter of the provision of metals for the manufacturing of Fairphone device, the team’s focus on the project was Tin. Tin is widely available in e-scrap (it is a critical material for the production of electronics), but the level of formal, responsible sources of secondary Tin in China is very limited. Stringent environmental legislation has moved many companies to the informal sector, and individuals spread over the industry dealing with scrap that is recycled in less sustainable conditions.

Therefore, manufacturers of Tin soldering paste (e.g. Alpha assembly which also participated in this project) have difficulties to source secondary Tin for reliable and responsible sources to fulfil the demand of solder paste made from recycled sources, to up the green credentials that the European and worldwide consumer demands and that is so needed in the sustainable transition.

EIT RawMaterials, Fairphone and Alpha funded research by Anthesis and Fairphone on the whole supply chain of Tin, with a strong focus on China. In this research, the team came to understand the different manufacturing stages of electronics products, how Tin is used in them, how each stage’s scrap is recycled and where secondary Tin is used.

This study represents a cornerstone for the future work between Fairphone and Alpha Assembly to establish a plan to help informal recyclers formalise and set up precise development requirements for good practices to become the norm. As a consequence, different standards that are in development at the moment may use Fairphone report as input information.

Fostering circular economy business models

The nature of the circular economy means that it is not possible to achieve this kind of growth without a strong and robust ecosystem of partners. Working with EIT RawMaterials is a natural way to tap into such an ecosystem. Fairphone began the collaboration with EIT RawMaterials as part of the Start-up and SME Booster Call 2018, which allowed them to examine the value chain of Tin in Chinese manufacturing. The RM Booster funding programme was instrumental in making this research a reality. Alpha Assembly and Fairphone incurred in a part of the costs, but the remaining funding needs were covered thanks to the EIT RawMaterials support program.

In the linear economy it might be possible to work with individual companies unilaterally, but in our case, everything has to be integrated. Therefore, partnerships and consortia are essential.

Miquel Ballester Salvà, Co-founder, Circular Innovation Lead at Fairphone 

From this initial project, Fairphone hopes to work more closely with the entire EIT Community to utilise the pan-continental network of start-ups, government and industry to help create a more sustainable smartphone industry.