August 30, 2019

The Ethical Smartphone and The Right to Repair

Fairphone announces the 3rd edition of its “ethical smartphone,” a phone that’s as sustainably constructed as it is easy to repair. If it gains traction, it could lead to changes in the way we approach major purchases like smartphones.

What is Fairphone

Fairphone is a smartphone made by a Dutch social enterprise company of the same name. It released its first model back in 2013, followed by the Fairphone 2 in 2016. The phones are meant to be:

Easy to repair with a “designed to open” approach with clear repair directions for users written on the components themselves that largely don’t need tools.

Sustainable with recycled copper and plastics. Its tin, and tungsten are conflict-free and the company is working to improve its sourcing of cobalt.

Responsibly Constructed by working to improve safety, pay and health for factory workers assembling the phones.

How it compares

Modular smartphones are not a new concept, with both Google’s Project Ara and Phonebloks leading the charge and showing promise a few years back. However, those projects eventually folded and the dream of users having custom phones with interchangeable—not just replaceable—components were put on hold.

Of course, the Fairphone isn’t designed as a powerhouse and its modest technical specifications aren’t going to put it on any power user’s radar. Even modular smartphones from mainstream makers like Motorola (Moto Z) and LG (G5) have failed to turn enough heads with their limited customization with none of the DIY repair freedom.

The movement, not enough people are talking about

The idea that “they don’t make things like they used to” holds true today, especially with regards to keystone devices like smartphones. But the Right-to-repair movement (and proponents like iFixit) are gathering steam and it could eventually change how we buy stuff and how companies make their products. Here’s what you need to know:

It holds consumers have the right to repair products they own—and that manufacturers make parts, software, and information available to do so.

It’s meant to protect consumers’ choice of access to repair services that aren’t designated by the manufacturer. It includes 3rd party services, skilled peers or even the users themselves.

It’s meant to stop consumers from being forced to choose between exorbitant repair fees and a comparatively worthwhile brand new device, and from letting electronics from entering the waste cycle way too early.

The future human cost

Over 20 states have filed legislation for right-to-repair across other sectors other than electronics such as automobiles and farming equipment. But our right-to-repair doesn’t just save us money and environmental damage. The right-to-repair goes hand in hand with the “right-to-tinker.”

There is a human cost when we want to explore how something works—which we paid for and assume the risk for, no less—and we simply can’t. Whether it’s previously removable circuit boards that are now soldered to the case, proprietary screws that can’t be turned by normal drivers or opaque troubleshooting procedures clarified only by visiting (and paying) in person, each is an obstacle that makes us dependent on someone else when we’re actually quite capable ourselves.

Our curiosity and creativity depend on unhindered exploration because when we know how something works inside-out, we can also know how it could work better. We’re already no strangers to asking more about where the food we eat every day comes from and how it’s made. It’s time we had the same conversation about the phones we break and replace every year.

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