Talk­ing point

The se­ri­ous so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pli­ca­tions of the man­u­fac­ture of smart­phones.

Friday - - Contents -

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 cher­ryp­icked 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

Fair­phone op­er­ates in hotspots where hu­man­i­tar­ian in­fringe­ments are rife, so as to make a dif­fer­ence

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 “WildWest” 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 prof­it­mak­ing 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 car­rotand-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-bystep ap­proach.”

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

The un­reg­u­lated tin mines on this In­done­sian Is­land are in­fa­mous for their ap­palling work­ing con­di­tions and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion

Now profit-mak­ing, Fair­phone be­gan life as a non-profit with a mis­sion to raise aware­ness, the com­pany’s founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Bas van Abel, above, says

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.