Our phones have lamentably short lives. Batteries die before they’re old, compatibility is transient, software support expires, and minor upgrades soon arrive that are presented as must-haves. It’s an insidious model — and one that Fairphone is upending.
The Dutch startup this week released a handset that sets new standards for sustainability: the Fairphone 5. Laudably, the company envisions the device functioning for 10 years.
The modular machine is built for repairability. Not only can you replace fading batteries, but also nine other parts, including the screen, USB-C port, and speakers.
To change them, just grab a screwdriver and follow the video guide. (After inspecting the system during the IFA Berlin trade show, TNW can attest that it’s as simple as it sounds.) As a further commitment to durability, the Fairphone 5 ships with a five-year warranty.
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On the software side, the protection is even longer. Fairphone provides at least eight years of OS support — but aims for an entire decade.
“We promise it until 2031,” Miquel Ballester, co-founder and head of product management at Fairphone, told TNW. “But we’re quite sure that we’ll be able to stretch it to 10 years.”
It’s a target that’s unrivalled among Android devices. To set the benchmark, Fairphone chose a chipset that’s built for industrial applications: the Qualcomm QCM6490. As the processor is designed for hardware and devices with a longer lifetime than phones, the software support cycle can also be extended.
In a world of pricey phones that only last for two to three years, the support and repairability have obvious consumer appeal. But the biggest benefits go to the planet.
Replacement parts can be ordered at Fairphone’s online shop. Credit: Fairphone
Fairphone’s approach to sustainability starts with the materials that make our phones — and the people that extract them.
The social enterprise began life as a campaign against conflict minerals, which are common in smartphones. Armed groups will often use forced labour to mine these minerals.
In 2013, Fairphone progressed from campaigning to producing handsets. The company now tries to source materials that are both conflict-free and sustainable.
To maximise the social impact, Fairphone identified 14 materials that have high potential for supply chain improvement. In the Fairphone 5, over 70% of these materials are fair-mined or recycled.
Ballester is particularly proud of the battery supply chain. The lithium inside comes from a single mine in Chile that’s certified by IRMA — the leading global standard for industrial mining.
Steps have also been taken to reduce the harm caused by cobalt, which is often mined by child labour. By using cobalt credits, 100% of the mineral in the battery is matched by cobalt produced under improved working conditions at artisanal and small scale mines. In an industry first, people who assemble the battery will also receive a living wage bonus.
“We are pretty sure this is the most fair and sustainable battery in the world,” Ballester said.
The benefits of sustainability extend to the consumer. According to Fairphone, the battery will hold its capacity through over 1,000 full charging cycles.
The Fairphone 5 is available in three colours: matte black, sky blue, and transparent. Credit: Fairphone
Further features of the Fairphone 5 include a 6.46-inch OLED screen and a triple 50-megapixel camera system. Altogether, the device has the specs to rival mid-range smartphones made by the market leaders. But Ballester is more focused on inspiring the giants than competing with them.
“The mission of Fairphone is to change the industry from within,” he said. “Everything that we do, we publish. We try to create a model that other companies can copy, replicate, make bigger, or join.”
Thus far, the industry response has been mixed. On the environmental side, Ballester has seen some positive changes, but improvements to the lives of workers have been “extremely slow,” he said.
As long as that remains the case, Fairphone will stand out in the market. Ultimately, consumers still need to push the industry to change.
“I think that tech-spec-wise, there’s no reason to buy an iPhone when you can buy the Fairphone 5,” Noud Tillemans, the interim CEO of Fairphone, told TNW. “And with every extra phone sold, we can have more impact.”
The Fairphone 5 is now available for preorder in Europe. Prices start at €699 in the eurozone or £619 in the UK. Shipping starts on September 14.