Strolling into the mobile handset section of any blissfully air-conditioned department store, even the most ardent technophobe is likely to be seduced by the svelte, shiny objects of fancy, standing to attention in neat rows and winking at him or her from the display units. The last thing the casual customer will think of is enslaved humans pickaxing tantalum, tungsten, tin or gold from mines controlled by armed tribal militia on the strife-torn far side of Africa. Or downtrodden, debt-encumbered workers doing 60-hour weeks on breadline wages in Chinese sweatshops. Or, for that matter, of choking coral reefs, mass deforestation or toxic waste.

But the sad truth is that smartphones – the commodity du jour in the developed world – are an ethical thinker’s worst nightmare. Very occasionally, news stories alert us to the horrors involved in mobile phone production. Like in 2009, when 137 workers at a factory in Suzhou, China were reported to have been hospitalised from poisoning by hexyl hydride, which is used in the production of touch screens.

Or the discovery that raw materials used to solder smartphones, tablets and mobiles are from the infamous tin mines on Bangka Island, Indonesia, where unregulated mining has scarred the landscape and obliterated fish stocks, and where around 150 labourers are thought to die each year due to appalling working conditions.

But by and large, consumers are oblivious
to the social and environmental costs of having the world in their pockets. Those who are in the know tend to assume that the multinational behemoths who manufacture tablets and smartphones are utterly indifferent to the problem: that the pursuit of maximum profit is always myopic. In fact, the problem is far more complex than that. The major brands are simply unable, in a globalised economy in which outsourcing is de rigueur, to keep track of the long and complex supply chains that have such a shocking impact on the environment and
far-flung communities. “There has been no credible system in the electronics industry that allows a company to determine the source of their material,” as one Nokia spokesperson recently revealed to British ethicist and writer George Monbiot, who abandoned his own quest for an ethical smartphone shortly after the Bangka Island revelation.

Far from being callous about these atrocities, the mobile industry big hitters are actually thinking harder about the issues involved with the billion or so smartphones currently in use around the world.

As with the sweatshop controversy in the high-street fashion market, companies are under immense pressure to wake up and take responsibility – or at least seem to – for the collateral damage their profit-making endeavours cause. And, being commercially savvy giants, they’re doing so.

I contacted some of the major smartphone manufacturers – Apple, Nokia, Samsung, LG and BlackBerry – and most responded, usually with impressive, – bamboozling, a cynic might say – amounts of data. I was guided towards vast PDF documents with lofty titles, packed with bullet points, tables and bar charts.

Apple responded the quickest – albeit in Dutch. “Is er een versie in het Engels?”
I asked, after a brief consultation with Google Translate. The same day, a reply in English directed me to a summary of Apple’s “Supplier Responsibility Report”, with a PDF of the full report available beneath. One of its most impressive claims concerns ‘bonded labour’ – workers having to pay an untenable portion of their wages to the recruiters who put them in the job. The report says that Apple has used its might to force suppliers to reimburse a total of $13.1 million (Dh48.1 million) to contract workers exploited by this practice since 2008.

Nokia also responded promptly, directing me to a 172-page PDF document detailing its sustainability and humanitarian goals and achievements last year, plus links to web pages detailing the company’s intentions and successes in specific areas: Supply Chain, Substance Management and Green and Ethical Operations. “Nokia became aware of the potential link between mining of tantalum and financing of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2001, and took action immediately,” says one key claim in the company literature.

BlackBerry, meanwhile, describes itself as an “active participant” in the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, which endeavours to ensure worker safety and fairness and environmental responsibility, as well as the Global e-Sustainability Initiative; more recently, it joined the Solutions for Hope project, a pilot scheme launched by Motorola Solutions to source conflict-free tantalum from the DRC.

Overall, there are telling cracks and caveats in the brands’ various reports: some might argue that, when a ‘Supplier Responsibility Declaration’ boasts “an average of 92 per cent compliance with a maximum 60-hour work week in 2012”, the 8 per cent non-compliance is the story here; LG Electronics apparently merely “encourages” its suppliers to source potential conflict minerals responsibly. And, inevitably, much of the material reeks of spin: pictures of non-Caucasians in gleaming-white safety gear, positively basking in their own job satisfaction, are likely to raise an incredulous eyebrow, while reams of data are often précised with cherry-picked facts. On the whole, though, it should be applauded that some of the household-name smartphone brands are showing a willingness to investigate, analyse and share their findings.

‘No such thing as a 100% ethical phone’

While the big guns in the mobile industry
have started making positive strides, one
small Dutch concern was set up specifically with the core objective, from the start, of creating a smartphone that would inflict minimal harm on the planet and its denizens. “Fairphone was founded in 2010 as a campaign, a non-profit organisation with a mission to raise awareness,” the company’s founder and chief executive Bas van Abel says. “Then we realised it doesn’t make sense to create awareness when you can’t offer an alternative, like people have with, say, electricity.”

A former designer and technical engineer, Van Abel is eager to stress that a 100 per cent ethical smartphone is not yet a realistic prospect. He freely admits that child labour remains part of Fairphone’s supply chain, referring specifically to tantalum, a mineral that stores electric charge and controls the flow of a current. Sixty-four per cent of global stocks are found in The DRC. “We could have gone to Australia to mine it, and the working conditions would have been great,” he says. “Instead, we’re stuck with a mine where the working conditions are pretty bad.” So why stick with it? “Because of the Dodd-Frank Act, a United States federal law passed in 2010. There’s a section that says that every company on the stock exchange has to carry out due diligence on minerals mined from conflict areas, such as eastern and southern DRC. This means a lot of paperwork, even though some mines in these places are not conflict related. So, around 90 per cent of the companies just left the area, which means 90 per cent of the people who were making a living wage are without a job now – and many of them actually joined the militia due to loss of income.” Fairphone’s way of dealing with this moral quandary is typified by its project at Kivu in the eastern DRC, where employment has increased considerably, as have miners’ incomes, dragging the local economy up with them – all while ensuring that no armed groups profit from the minerals used in production.

“Our next step is to work on child labour, and perhaps get these kids to school as well,” says Van Abel. “To make a phone truly fair, you’d have to solve the war in the DRC. But I believe that through making products I can change systems. If you know where every part of the phone is coming from, you can do something about it.” Fairphone is now in talks with Rwandan authorities to find conflict-free tungsten in a similar manner.

People might also be surprised that much of Fairphone’s production assembly takes place in China, notorious for its sweatshops and gruelling working conditions. As with the African sources of raw materials, though, the company needs to be operating in the hotspots where humanitarian infringements are rife, in order to make a difference.

In stark contrast to the “Wild West” of The DRC, as Van Abel describes it, China faces problems “of a more delicate, political nature” – laws that forbid safety standards and labour restrictions. “[The government is] really afraid that these things, collectively, could undermine the country’s power strategy.” So, after an extensive search, Fairphone found a smaller factory in Sichuan province that would offer far more transparency when it came to social and environmental issues than any of the larger assembly points.

Creating proactive owners

As for Fairphone’s green credentials, this highly ambitious enterprise aims to eventually make phones completely from recycled materials. In the meantime, it uses minimal packaging and encourages consumers to keep their handsets for as long as possible by offering spare parts and downloadable repair instructions on its website. This runs contrary to the current zeitgeist whereby handsets are subject to carefully planned obsolescence: “designed for the dump”, as some observers put it. But Van Abel’s core belief is that re-engaging consumers with the design of their commodities – right down to the finest detail – can make them proactive owners of their possessions: and that ethical decision-making is the next logical step. His motto is borrowed from what the American high-tech DIY quarterly magazine Make refers to as its “Bill of Rights”: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

It’s a notion he’d love to impart to competitors. “We actually communicate a lot with Nokia, Samsung and all these other parties because as an industry we all have to raise the bar,” he says. “To make a real impact we need to inspire these big players – they can do things we can’t because they have high volumes, while we can pioneer new things because we’re small. We can just stand next to the assembly machine and say ‘use this stuff’, and inspire the industry to do the same. After all, we should all be competing when it comes to fairness and sustainability.”

Of course, the question on many people’s lips when they first hear about Fairphone is whether it competes in terms of technical quality. And gadget geeks can rest assured – the inaugural Fairphone offers a quad-core 1.2 GHz CPU running Android Jelly Bean, a capacitive 960x540-pixel touchscreen, dual cameras (8MP and 1.3 MP) and MicroSD support up to 32GB. For lay people, that means the answer is “yes, pretty much”.

After all, it has to. Fairphone, which has just nine employees, might have a charitable element – three euros from each unit sold will go to a programme that removes electronic waste from Ghana – but is actually a profit-making company, and Van Abel believes that commercial success will facilitate their broader aims in the longer term. “To effect change, you have to be part of the system that you want to change,” he points out.

So could Fairphone ever live up to its name one hundred per cent? Van Abel sees the carrot-and-stick nature of his project as the ultimate motivator. “What we’re doing is mission impossible,” he says, “which means we’ll never stop trying. Of course we all want to reach 100 per cent, but we know we never will. For a start, what we think is ‘fair’ now might not be 10 years from now – there was a time when child labour was considered fair in the now developed world. What a Congolese person sees as fair is not what I see as fair. Fairness is never absolute – it’s an on going process, a step-by-step approach.”

It would take a hard-hearted observer not to egg the company on, every step of the way.