The idea of business as a force for good may be gaining traction worldwide. But how does that look like in practice?
Well, allow me to share a case study with you: the smartphone market.
While most of us have grown rather attached (read: glued) to our cell phones, they, unfortunately, come with many negative side effects.
And no, I’m not just talking about data privacy concerns, the impact cell phone have on our productivity or our connection with others — that’s a whole separate discussion.
I’m talking about things that are more unacceptable than just ignoring our dinner guests in favor of reading the latest email…such as inadvertently funding a civil war, for instance.
As with many other goods we consume, it turns out that it’s predominantly others (and I don’t mean our dinner guests) who have to deal with the negative side effects of phones.
Business as a force for good civil war: your cell phone’s dirty secret (that has nothing to do with nude pictures)
Reports about the dirty secrets behind our cell phones have been around for a long time. For instance, in 2011, The Atlantic asked: “Is Your Cell Phone Fueling Civil War in Congo?”
In 2012, activist and refugee Bandi Mbubi used his TEDx talk to reveal the bloody past behind the devices in our hands. He also called upon consumers to demand a fair trade cell phone.
In 2016, Amnesty International claimed in 2016 that
“major electronic brands including Apple, Samsung and Sony, are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products.”
If you think things have gotten better, this detailed 2018 article will make you lose your illusions.
So, should we all ditch our phones and go back to the dark ages? ?
Before we discuss the ethics of switching over to pigeon carriers (animal rights!) and smoke signals (CO2 emissions!), let’s first see if business can remedy the mess it has gotten us into.
Can business be a force for good, even in a highly competitive marketplace?
A few years ago, I received an uplifting email. The email was titled: “We want to thank you x 100,000!”
The small company that had sent it out informed me that they had just reached a major milestone: 100,000 sold phones Fairphones!
In the day and age of Apple’s enormous success, this number may not seem impressive at all.
But it is. Those 100,000 sold Fairphones constituted a paradigm shift.
And, as Gustave Aimard put it:
“there is something more powerful than the brute force of bayonets: it is the idea whose time has come and hour struck.”
First things first though: what exactly is a Fairphone?
→ Building a movement for fairer electronics.
→ Opening up supply chains, changing production processes and improving worker welfare.
The company’s first product, the Fairphone 1, was released in December 2013.
I’m a proud owner of that (now retired) phone.
But, to be honest, I often felt like throwing that phone against the wall. For instance, it often wouldn’t charge at all. (I’m not sure if just my phone had this issue or if others had them, too.)
There were other issues I experienced with my Fairphone 1 — it sometimes didn’t do what it was supposed to do, such as… letting me make calls.
Perhaps this is what you get when you’re an early adopter of something but experiencing these challenges made me rather sad.
I love the idea behind the Fairphone so I naturally wanted to convince others to get one, too. Yet because my everyday experience of using this phone was mixed, I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend it to others.
Introducing the Fairphone 2
In December 2015, Fairphone released the Fairphone 2, the first modular smartphone that was available for purchase. (Unfortunately, the Fairphone is currently only available for sale in Europe.)
While I haven’t tried this version of the phone myself, according to a Telegraph review, its functionality compares to a number of other mid-range Android smartphones.
Which basically means that you don't have to compromis to buy a more ethical phone.
If the Fairphone sounds somewhat boring compared to the latest flashy gadget, consider this: its modular nature means that it’s much more sustainable than an average phone and the website iFixit gave it a 10 out of 10 for repairability.
In fact, if you break your screen, it can be swapped out in as little as 23 seconds!
The final verdict: is this business a force for good?
Even though Fairphone readily admits to a lot of improvement potential and that it’ll be a while until the world sees a truly “fair” phone (if ever), I think the Fairphone 2 is a big step in the right direction.
And, as one of the early customers of Fairphone, I’m glad that I got to be a small part of this journey.
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(For more thoughts about business as a force for good, check out this Podcast episode here.)