How Fairphone is building an ethical phone for our immoral world

Most phone companies release multiple models throughout the year to give users more choice – and sell many more devices than if they were just offering one.

Fairphone, a company with a core mission of making devices that last, is trying to chart a different course than most phone makers by breaking this cycle.

It’s not a household name when it comes to buying phones. But at its core, the company wants your phone to last longer and designs it in such a way that you can easily fix it yourself.

We spoke to CEO Eva Gouwens about the challenges of building a durable phone, the yearly release trend, and what the ethical electronics industry looks like.

Why it’s important to use your phone longer

It takes a lot of resources to produce devices; Gouwens claims that almost 75% of CO2 emissions attributed to appliances are generated during the production process. So the longer you stay with a device, the less impact it has on the environment.

In April, the company released a lifecycle analysis of its Fairphone 4 handset – released in 2021 – which illustrates the carbon footprint of manufacturing and using the device.

Fairphone 4 is the latest device from the company. 1 credit

The study indicated that you could reduce the environmental impact by 31% if you use your device for five years instead of three.

Gouwens also mentioned that all Fairphones are modular, so you don’t have to ditch them when they develop minor issues:

Fairphones are still modular, which means you can easily repair them as many devices are abandoned due to simple repairs. Many phones are not designed to allow these repairs these days.

Plus, we have upgrade and recycling programs to ensure materials are used sustainably.

The company’s website states that 40% of devices returned to the company are given new life through repairs or a refurbishment process, and 60% of them are safely recycled to recover materials. valuable resources. Gouwens noted that this program is also extended to modules.

Against the trend of the annual life cycle

Fairphone has launched five phones in total since its first device was launched in 2013. The company wants to move away from the trend of releasing a phone every year and ask its customers to use the devices for longer.

For this, the company had to make the phone “more repairable”. Gouwens said that with the Fairphone 4 you can replace parts like the USB-C port, which was not possible in previous versions.

Fairphone makes its devices easily repairable by anyone
Fairphone makes its devices easily repairable by anyone

She added that over the years it has also had to learn to balance releasing new devices and making parts available to customers for older devices.

With Fairphone 4, it already offers a five-year warranty and aims to provide software support until 2027, so you can potentially buy a Fairphone today and use it for five years and beyond.

But releasing phones with a longer gap between devices also has its downside. You can’t get the latest and greatest industry specs in Fairphones. The company has tried to compensate for this with upgradeable camera modules for Fairphone 2 and 3, but that’s about it.

Building an audience for durable phones

Fairphone’s durability also comes at a cost. Its latest Fairphone 4 costs €579 (around $600). For comparison, the OnePlus Nord CE and Samsung Galaxy M42 – which use the same processor – cost less than half of it at $342 and $300 respectively.

At this point, Gouwens said it’s about making a phone that lasts a long time:

Rapid phone release cycles have led us to believe that the next big thing is upon us, and it’s radically different from the last. But that never really changes life, and smartphones have become more and more similar over the years.

So with the Fairphone 4 we wanted to create a relevant phone for years of use.

Despite favorable media coverage and praise for its repairability, Fairphone has a relatively low sales volume compared to well-known players in the industry.

Eva Gouwens, CEO of Fairphone
Fairphone CEO Eva Gouwens. 1 credit

The company sold 100,000 phones last year and has already sold 50,000 devices this year. By comparison, Apple reportedly sold over 239 million devices last year.

The company said it has more than 200,000 active Fairphone users. But he expects that number to rise rapidly soon.

What does the future look like?

Fairphone’s scale compared to other smartphone makers in the market is tiny. The company only operates in Europe and sells a few thousand phones every year.

He says his customers are people who are willing to compromise on specifications as long as they contribute to the sustainability movement. Gouwens said he wants to reach a wider audience now:

Our mission is that we want to establish an ethical electronics market to motivate the industry to act more responsibly.

Now we have to convince users who don’t want to compromise and just want a normal phone. But they’re willing to pay a premium as long as the company’s purpose is worthy.

She added that Fairphone wanted to increase brand awareness in Europe – which is around 10% – before expanding to other regions.

To that end, the company launched a £99.95 pair of truly wireless earbuds last year. So people who don’t want to buy the phone yet can still contribute to the sustainability initiative with another gadget.

Genuine Fairphone headphones made with durable materials
Genuine Fairphone headphones are made with durable materials. 1 credit

Over the past few years, Apple and Samsung have announced eco-friendly initiatives, including ditching the phone’s charger bricks and using recyclable materials in their devices.

Gouwens pointed out that Fairphone is different because it seeks to make an impact on the pitch. Instead of focusing on recyclable components, the company thinks it’s best to focus on how to increase a device’s longevity:

“We want to solve the worst phone manufacturing problems. We aim to change the system. So we have to aim for longevity and partnerships, and not have these initiatives in a closed system,” she said.

Did you know that Eva Gouwens speaks at TNW Conference this summer? View the full list of speakers here.