Reconnecting with ethics: an alternative future for smartphones

| 19th March 2018
Woman looks at hundreds of old mobile phones

Scrap phones collected by Closing the Loop partner in Ghana, destined for proper recycling in Belgium.

The number of people using smartphones has exploded - 95 percent of Americans own a mobile phone. But when technology grows quickly, the ethics can get left behind with human rights abuses and environmental damage. So how are we going to get to another, more ethical future? Lush Times reporter KATIE DANCEY-DOWNS investigates

Local people then harvest the precious metals within devices, often by burning away the other materials. This results in toxic fumes being released, and poses serious health risks to those living close by.

Beneath the surface of smartphones, beneath the text messages, social media, and apps, lies a dark and disturbing story.

The first chapter takes place in mines across the world. Conflict minerals and some other resources are surrounded by dangerous working conditions, child labour, and environmental damage.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the coltan - a metallic ore - being mined to build capacitors in mobiles is also sustaining militias, according to The Global Policy Forum.

The illegal exploitation of natural resources in the region has been linked to major conflicts, and condemned by the UN. Further away in Indonesia, tropical forest is being torn down for tin mining, where child labour is also common. There are plenty more stories like these.

After the mining of minerals, comes the production process. According to the Wall Street Journal, for some workers at places like Foxconn, this means a long list of rights abuses: poor wages, unsafe working conditions, long hours, little to no freedom of speech, excessive overtime, and unreasonable production targets.

Finally, once technology has been bought, used, and tossed aside for the latest release, it has to go somewhere. That place could very well be an e-waste site like Agbogbloshie in Ghana.

Local people then harvest the precious metals within devices, often by burning away the other materials. This results in toxic fumes being released, and poses serious health risks to those living close by.

There are plenty of other ways mobile phone production impacts humans and the planet - this introductory overview is just a snapshot.

Thankfully, there are also plenty of ways that impact can be limited. Not all factories abuse human rights, and not all minerals are mined using child labour. There are alternative solutions, and there are organisations working to put more ethical practices in place.

The companies fighting for change

Fairphone

Fairphone is doing things a little differently. In creating an “ethical” handset, this is an organisation striving towards making a positive social and environmental impact.

The handset is built with longevity in mind, minimising waste and reducing demand on the world’s resources. The modular design of the Fairphone 2 means that when the screen cracks or the camera stops working, that element can be replaced by the consumer who  can order replacement components online and fix the problem themselves, rather than the whole phone being thrown away. This is all about reusing and recycling instead of rushing out to buy the latest model.

Problems surrounding the mining of the minerals used in smartphones are also being tackled by Fairphone, and responsible sourcing is a key factor in how the handsets are made.

Community manager Douwe Schmidt says that Fairphone works only with mines which are conflict-free, but admits that the process is complicated. He says that in reality, every mineral needs its own ethical sourcing policy.

What happens on the factory floor is another important element of Fairphone’s drive towards more ethical technology, and the organisation works with suppliers to make sure workers are treated well.

In addition to carefully selecting partners, conditions are improved through a collaborative process between Fairphone, manufacturers, NGOs, and other human rights experts.

Fairphone faced a true test in December 2015, when shipping delays led to a bottleneck at the organisation’s manufacturer, Hi-P. With the Christmas manufacturing deadline looming, and customers waiting, Fairphone had a choice - should it put production requirements before the needs of the workers?

Other companies might rely on excessive overtime shifts to meet peaks of demand, but Fairphone chose not to. The workers’ needs were put first, and Fairphone asked its customers to accept a delay to their Christmas deliveries. Those customers accepted - in the name of fairness.

As far as Douwe is concerned, companies like Fairphone should be ‘the norm’, rather than the exception. He says: “Everything should be green and environmentally friendly. We should label the things that are not environmentally friendly.”

“We might then be able to really achieve change,” he adds. But to really make an impact, he acknowledges that Fairphone needs to grow more.

The Restart Project

Smartphone upgrades are never far from reach. But what if we turned down the offer of the latest model, and chose instead to invest in repairing what we already have and use?

In a mission to lengthen the lifespan of smartphones, the Restart Project is encouraging people to get skilled up, and fix handsets, rather than throw them away.

At Restart events, volunteers help people learn how to fix their own gadgets. This is a chance for people to not only get their handsets fixed, but to develop the skills needed to repair all kinds of electronics.  

The project has now made its way into some schools, where secondary age students are learning these invaluable skills, and then helping their classmates fix broken tech.

A 10- week enrichment programme is underpinned by the social and environmental impact that this kind of work has. It all culminates in a Restart Party, where the students help others fix their gadgets too.

This translates into more phones staying out of landfills and e-waste sites, and fewer handsets needing to be created. Consequently, demand for minerals is lower, and factories have fewer phones to produce.

All this assumes that smartphones are being built to last, and that they will still support software. If this is not the case, it may fall on consumers to put pressure on companies, and demand that technology has a longer lifespan.

Closing the Loop

At the point at which a smartphone is beyond repair, recycling needs to come into play.

Enter Closing the Loop. This social enterprise project claims to have saved 1.9 million phones from the dump, by creating a circular system whereby phones are recycled safely and properly.

The organisation’s mission is to rescue phones as they near the end of their lives, and recover the materials in the safest way possible.

Closing the Loop director, Joost de Kluijver, saw first-hand in Africa that when a mobile phone dies, it becomes a dangerous waste hazard, causing not only pollution, but also impacting adversely on human lives.

Joost says: “I wanted to make telecom the first waste-free industry in the world.”

By partnering with entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia, Closing the Loop is creating local recovery networks, which collect scrap mobile phones for recycling. The organisation buys scrap phones, and ships them to Europe for proper recycling.

Joost explains: “For each phone being shipped to Asia or Africa, we collect a scrap phone in those regions and save it from the dump. That way, we ensure that the second life of our customers' and partners' phones do not lead to more e-waste in emerging markets.”

Small businesses and individuals are paid for their electronic waste, and Closing the Loop says that over 2,000 people have financially benefited from the project.

For Joost, this is not about apportioning blame. This is about encouraging people to recognise the opportunities in being more sustainable including financial benefits when people use products for longer, less waste, reducing pollution, and an improved quality of  life for many people around the world.

Joost says that if the project is successful, it will prove that it is possible to make a global industry waste free.

“That proof can be used to get other industries to follow and work on a waste free world,” Joost says.

However, according to Joost, there is a long way to go before phones become truly circular.

Reconnecting

Fairphone’s Douwe Schmidt describes smartphones as one of the most intimate devices that we use everyday.

With these handheld devices that follow us everywhere, we type our personal information, capture photographs, and talk to our loved ones.

We spend hours and hours with our phones in our hands or pockets. Few of us are going to willingly give up our phones, but it is clearly time to re-evaluate our choices, and put more time into thinking about the true impact our discarded technology has on the planet.

While buying a Fairphone might seem like the most ethical option, Douwe is clear - the most ethical phone is the one you already have. The minerals in that phone have already been mined, it has already been pieced together, and while it is in your hand, it is not in an e-waste site or a landfill.

The phone in your hand may not have been ‘born’ ethical, but it is better to get as much use from it as possible, rather than trading it in for something else. When that device has reached the end of its life - beyond repair and regeneration - a Fairphone handset could be a strong contender for consumers who want to walk a more ethical path.

Ultimately, the power is in the hands of consumers to make a difference. They have the power to slow down their technology consumption, and to put pressure on companies to build an ethical future for smartphones.

This Author

Katie Dancey-Downs is a writer with the environmental, animal rights, and social justice news channel The Lush Times. This article is part of a new content-sharing arrangement with The Lush TimesClosing the Loop spoke at the Lush Summit 2018. View it on Lush Player.