The Most Impactful Mobile Revolution Begins Now
Sometimes I do not know how to live.
I recycle -- and drive to work. I buy the cardboard milk carton instead of the plastic one -- and emit tons of carbon flying around the world. I pay my staff a fair wage -- and talk on a phone made by people who are earning anything but.
I live a physically comfortable lifestyle in a first-world country, disconnected, complicit, and confused. Do I give away all my belongings except for the hemp cargo pants (note: I don’t actually own any hemp cargo pants) and go live in the bush? Do I not bother with the milk carton since just one international flight destroys years of lactose-inspired conscientiousness? Or do I continue to walk the hypocritical line of sustainability-only-when-it-suits?
The phone thing, in particular, really bothers me, as I sit here connected to the Internet through my phone. After learning about appalling working conditions at the Foxconn factory in China -- where iPhones are made -- I was even more appalled to learn that the labor component of the phone is a mere $8. Millions of us support this by buying the devices, even though most of us would probably pay another $10 for our super-fancy phones if it meant the people assembling the things could afford a carrot in addition to their bowl of rice.
But we have set up a system hungry for volume and getting hungrier, and we will need more and more people to turn out the machines we can now not live without and for which we will want to pay less and less, and the mountain of discarded smartphones will continue to grow behind us as we chuck out the old in favor of the new.
I don’t know much about the Samsung factories, or the HTC factories, or the Nokia factories, but I don’t kid myself that buying a different kind of phone makes me any better of a person.
Unless it were a different kind of phone.
That’s the premise of Fairphone, a “seriously cool smartphone” that aims to put “social values first.” According to the company’s website, this means the following:
- Conflict-free resources (tin and tantalum)
- Worker welfare
- E-waste programs
- Open, flexible design
- Transparent production and pricing
Can we buy the Fairphone with clear consciences? Or are we merely greenwashing our obsession with gadgetry, taking a pill to soothe our heartburn while we continue to gorge on pizza?
The short answer is this: I have no idea. I don’t know enough about how phones are made, including this one. And I don’t know whether the Fairphone model could be sustainable if it scaled up to Apple or Samsung volumes. But I do know this: The Fairphone is speaking to a market desire, one that I believe will only grow. I am not the only hippie out there agonizing over the impact of my purchases, flawed and feeble though my logic may be. The Fairphone is an acknowledgment that there may be another way to approach our supply chains, and that the time to embrace that other way may be nigh.
When Tim Cook took the reins of Apple, I wrote him an open letter, urging him to make his mark on the sustainability profile of the company. It is one of the pieces I am most proud of, and it got more negative comments than almost anything else I’ve ever written. But all you have to do is look at Whole Foods to see the market potential of pandering to hypocrites like me.
Someone is going to own this space. They’re going to lead a mobile revolution, not by making a better iPhone, but by making an iPhone we can feel better about. And if I have to fly to Europe to pick mine up, so be it.