Any ethical, non-🍏 📱 recommendations?
It all started with a WhatsApp message from my friend, an environmental campaigner who runs a large government sustainability project. She's the most ethical person I know and has always worked hard to push me, and others, into making a more positive impact on the world. Always ahead of the curve, she steered me clear of products containing palm oil, as well as carbon-intensive manufacturing and sweatshop labor.
That day, she wanted my opinion on what smartphone she should buy, but this time requested an ethical device. Until now, she's been an HTC loyalist, but wanted to explore the options for something better and more respectable. My default response was the Fairphone 2, which is produced in small quantities by a Dutch startup, but I began to wonder -- that can't be the only phone you can buy with a clear conscience, can it?
My friend explained she wanted to trust that companies are "not being dicks in relation to materials, processes, supply chain, working standards and the ability to repair." "Most people aren't supply-chain experts, so there'll be all sorts of impacts we're not in a position to know about." Her approach generally follows the tenets of ethical consumerism, the practice of buying products which are "ethically produced, and / or not harmful to the environment, or society."
"[Smartphones have] so many components from different countries, which all have their own challenges regarding fairness."
By voting with your wallet, it's thought that consumers can affect systemic improvement by shopping with companies that do the right thing. Throughout the 1990s, companies like Nike were at the center of a movement tasked with reducing sweatshop labor in the fashion industry.
Critics of the practice point out that, even decades later, labor abuses still occur at Nike factories, and its former CEO has used his fortune to fight political causes designed to improve people's quality of life. Either way, it's hard to buy ethically because there are so many issues to take into account when buying any product.
Ensuring your food or clothes are ethical is difficult, but nothing compared to consumer electronics. "It's one of the most globalized products you can imagine." Fabian Huhne is Fairphone's public engagement manager and press officer. "[Smartphones have] so many components from different countries, which all have their own challenges regarding fairness."
Devices vary, but your average smartphone may use more than 60 different metals. Many of them are rare earth metals, so-called because they're available in smaller quantities than many other metals, if not genuinely rare.
Often, these substances are found in conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both there and in the surrounding region, the proceeds from mining, which often uses child and/or slave labor, have been used to finance its brutal civil war. Since 2014, the US Dodd-Frank Act has stipulated that a company must disclose if its products use materials from conflict zones.
Greenpeace's Gary Cook, who analyzes the IT sector for the NGO, agrees that supply chains are spectacularly complex. He's also seen that some companies are "recognizing they have to start taking control of their supply chain." This may have been prompted by press coverage, such as the recent revelations from Apple supplier Catcher Technology, and that when such stories break, they have "brand implications" which can harm a company's brand and reputation.