The Dutchman Bas van Abel is facing a special problem. He has set up a company that aims to make phones and sell them for as little as possible. Or not as little as possible, but just according to people’s needs - none more.
That company is smartphone maker Fairphone, which started in 2013.
Originally, Fairphone was not a device manufacturer but a campaign to highlight the problems of the smartphone industry: Poor recyclability of devices, their frequent replacement, and component supply chains, including materials produced in conflict areas and child labor.
This is how the Fairphone, now in its third version, was born.
The Fairphone 3 is part of the mid-range Android phones.
The € 450 Fairphone 3 is a mid-range phone. It has a 6.3-inch screen, a Sony 12-megapixel camera, 4GB of working memory and 64GB of mass memory, and a 3,000mm battery. The CPU is often seen in the mid-range Snapdragon 632.
The device is not mind-blowing, but well-designed.
- The phone is designed to fit 95% of people. It’s made for the mid-range and has a good camera. The device is not mind-blowing, but well-designed, van Abel describes.
According to van Abel, Fairphone offers a clear benefit to the consumer. If a customer buys a new phone after 4 or 5 years instead of 2, the savings are significant. In addition to the consumer's wallet, it also comes to nature, as most of the emissions caused by a smartphone are generated during the manufacturing phase.
Van Abel criticizes the current trend, which worships the thinness of the phone. This results in the parts of the phone being glued to the device, making it virtually impossible to replace them. In Africa, for example, phones often end up in landfills.
Achieving change is difficult as it fights the industry’s growth expectations and growth-based business models.
- The problem is that people are stuffed with a new phone that they don't need yet.
Tracking production chains does not mean taking them to “safe” countries. Van Abel says improving the conditions for miners who extract the phone’s raw materials in Africa is a more meaningful option than buying cobalt, gold, tungsten or tin from elsewhere, for example.
Bas van Abel resigned as CEO of Fairphone in 2018.
- 50 percent of the plastic in the phone modules is recycled. In addition, we have other fair materials from the mines in the supply chains we use, and they account for about 45 percent, van Abel says.
- We would rather solve problems than avoid them, the founder formulates.
Van Abel admits that it is virtually impossible to know the background of all the parts. In terms of the most problematic parts and raw materials, the company is still well on the map.
The release rate of Fairphone devices has been slower than the one-year cycle typical of the smartphone industry. This poses some problems, as the promise of support for a phone from the time of purchase for 5 years is sometimes difficult. The availability of parts for several years is a hassle. Fairphone's idea is based on easy repairability and easy replacement of parts, so monitors and batteries, for example, must be able to be offered to customers even after years.
- One phone has more than 1200 parts. Subcontracting chains can be very complex and constantly changing. Subcontractors can go bankrupt, in which case we have to procure parts elsewhere, van Abel says.
When a particular important component is discontinued, the customer is usually given a last time buy. In this case, you should know how many parts are still needed before moving on to the next model.
Van Abel promises that Fairphone will deliver both operating system and security updates to the device on time.
The phone does not come with a charger or headphones, and never came. The intention is for people to use their old ones.
People are supplied with huge amounts of chargers that are never used.
- People are supplied with huge numbers of chargers that are never used.
Apple is expected to leave the charger and headphones out of the upcoming iPhone 12. Van Abel welcomes this as a development, but does not speculate on Apple's possible motives.
Read more: Apple Guru: A free accessory on iPhone comes with a fee
- Of course I would like to see this trend. Apple's involvement can help with that.
The phone is assembled from easily detachable modules, which makes it easy to replace parts.
One of his most important achievements is van Abel's raising of environmental and working conditions on the table.
- When we started, ethics was not a topic of conversation. We were the first to talk about these things. However, telephone manufacturing is as problematic as clothing manufacturing.
Fairphone has risen to profitability after 7 years and 250,000 phones. According to Van Abel, we want growth next. The phone brand is not yet very well known, although there is a nice demand in Germany, France and Austria.
- We are at a point where we can make money. It took time. Now we need more volume.
Of course, we are aware of the inconvenience of the business model. Yes, we want to sell phones, albeit less than once a year or two per customer.
- Of course, we are aware of the inconvenience of the business model. Yes, we want to sell phones, albeit less than once a year or two per customer.
Next, brand work is required. That’s why van Abel says he stepped down as CEO in 2018. The current CEO, Eva Gouwens, specifically has experience in brand building.
Van Abel sees new types of business models in the future. One such could be a “phone as a service” type solution similar to a car lease, with a contract for the maintenance and support of the device.
Van Abel points out that offering more ethical phones, or even having people buy them, is not enough to solve problems.
- If you make a durable phone, customers must also want to use it for longer. So the way they think needs to change.