(Partially) FairPhone to arrive in Fall 2013

You may be familiar with FairPhone, a Dutch NGO with the goal of producing the world’s first ethical smartphone.

While the initiative has kept a fairly low profile so far, it appears that quite a bit has been going on behind the scenes. Some more content is starting appear on the web site, and yesterday, the German news paper taz posted an article about FairPhone.

The good news is that the initiative has made progress to the point that they are anticipating a release date: According to the article quoted above, the design phase will finish around June 2013, after which the project will produce the first batch of phones using crowdfunding, and ship the first batch of 10 000 devices in Fall.

What will the resulting phone look like? Since the focus is not on technical innovation, it will be a fairly standard middle-class smartphone probably running Android. As one of the project partner’s is Geeksphone, one could speculate that, like said company’s current product, it will not require rooting or similar silly exercises to obtain full access to the device. The price tag is estimated to be between 250–300 euros.

Of course, it’s essential to take a look at what is “fair” about this phone. Given the lack of infrastructure, it would be impossible to build a phone today that is 100% fair: This would mean fair treatment of the workers in all the mines where the dozens of minerals used are mined, as well as in all the plants where components and the final device are manufactured. Given the poorly controlled conditions under which especially mining takes place, this means that a lot of infrastructure has to be built. Consequently, FairPhone pursues an incremental approach, meaning that their first product will only partially be fair.

Notably, FairPhone cooperates with the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative, whose goal it is to deliver tin from the D.R. Congo without financing the ongoing military conflict. Also, manufacturing of the phone will take place under controlled conditions. Still, this only covers one of the many minerals used, and still leaves open the question of whether the phone’s electronic components are manufactured under controlled conditions as well. It seems as though the FairPhone will therefore be, in actuality, mostly unfair.

This notwithstanding, FairPhone could be the first to bring the so-far nonexistent dimension of “fairness” to the smartphone market. Given the current state of one manufacturer being as bad as the next one, buyers have no way to express a preference towards ethically produced phones. The availability of a FairPhone, might be the first step in changing that.

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