Fairly produced smartphones are still a rarity. The reason is sad. The Fairphone is familiar to most consumers. But what alternatives can compete with the sustainably manufactured top dog?

Living a sustainable life is easier said than done. In some areas of our everyday life consumers have little or no opportunity to reach for fairly produced and ecological products. This is particularly the case with technology such as smartphones and laptops. In the shop, consumers usually see the finished high-gloss product. But what is in it and how it is manufactured is as complex as the devices themselves in the globalized economy with its worldwide supply chains and production facilities.

The Fairphone

The Dutch company Fairphone, based in Amsterdam, has been fighting this problem since 2013. With the first Fairphone, the founders made sure that the metals used did not come from war zones. This was followed by constant development towards more powerful but also more sustainable smartphones. The highlight of the following generations was a modular system that allows individual components such as the camera or battery to be replaced.

Consumers don’t have to buy a new smartphone every four years, they only replace the components that need an update. The new Fairphone 4 transmits in the 5G network, runs with Android 11 and has Fairtrade Gold certification. A label that no other smartphone is allowed to adorn itself with. Another plus: For every Fairphone sold, the company recycles the same amount of electronic waste.

The Fairphone alternatives

Driven by the success of the Fairphone, other manufacturers are trying to follow suit. However, the competitors share certain characteristics of the Fairphone among themselves. There is no equal competitor for the Fairphone yet.

After all, there are assembled cell phones from the manufacturer Gigaset, at least in some parts of Germany. Unfortunately, they are not modular and their production still requires suppliers from other countries with poorer working conditions. However, production in Germany is always a first step in the right direction. Gigaset also makes sure that its packaging consists of up to 90 percent recycled material. Plus point for the environment: Since the smartphones are manufactured in Germany, there are no long delivery distances. The manufacturer’s latest smartphone is the Gigaset GS4 – but its successor, the GS5, is already in the starting blocks.

Mara is also taking a similar path to Gigaset with its X1. However, the manufacturer does not produce in Germany but in Africa. And there is a good reason for that: the aim of the Mara Foundation is to improve working conditions on site. Unfortunately, the manufacturer is silent about the working conditions of the built-in chips as well as about the origin of the raw materials.

The Teracube, on the other hand, is said to be particularly environmentally friendly. It consists of 25 percent recycled material and offers a four-year manufacturer’s guarantee and a free repair service. For comparison: There is a five-year guarantee on the Fairphone 4 and experienced hobbyists can carry out the repair themselves thanks to the modular system. After all: For every Teracube sold, the company says it plants a tree. Teracube is also moving in the right direction, but is not yet close to a Fairphone.

Buy Shiftphone 6mg from OTTO

The Shiftphone is a similarly modular smartphone to the Fairphone. In addition to their longevity thanks to the modular system, Shift products shine because the company is committed to donating five percent of its income to social and sustainability projects. Why haven’t you heard of the devices yet? Well, only 0.1 percent of the money goes into marketing and advertising. As if that were not enough, the founders also forego private profits from their company. By the way: In 2021 the German Sustainability Award went to Shift. This means that the Berlin startup is currently the closest thing to Fairphone. The company’s flagship is the Shift6mq.

Rare resources: the problem of smartphones

Around 60 different raw materials lie dormant in a smartphone, including iron, silicon, gold, magnesium, copper, nickel, tin, palladium and rare sands and earths. Some of them are obtained under inhumane conditions and always when they come from the poorest regions of the world – for example the Congo. Children, among others, dig for cobalt in the mines there, as Amnesty International disclosed in a 2016 report.

The metal is indispensable for batteries in mobile phones and electric cars. How and where the raw materials are collected for further processing is also a global spectacle. The raw materials for chips usually end up in Indian factories and are processed there. The end product – i.e. the finished chip – then travels on to China and Taiwan, where it is mutated into a smartphone with other components from all over the world as cost-effectively as possible. This in turn lands in containers by freighter in Europe, America, Australia and Oceania and all other corners of the world.

profit versus humanity

No matter where on earth mine operators, suppliers and factory owners are located, the only thing that unites them all is the will to make the business as profitable as possible. And in corrupt states or dictatorships, this business is mostly based on the exploitation of land and people. Unfortunately, no manufacturer can choose how the raw materials are distributed, which is why everyone (must) make themselves more or less dependent on this exploitation.

However, most manufacturers also shy away from the expense and effort involved in making raw material extraction and production chains more employee-friendly and environmentally friendly. If so, then the change only comes about under pressure from outside – i.e. the biggest customers. However, the effort for the manufacturers seems too great to dig through the global supply and production network and to put pressure on production facilities and the extraction of raw materials. Added to this is the fear of being left behind by an act of humanity compared to the competition. After all, one thing counts above all for Apple, Samsung and Co.: profit. And as is well known, this does not increase through fairer and more sustainable products, but through cheaply produced and expensively sold products.

Bad image, better working conditions

Unless the image suffers: A few years ago, Apple came under criticism because the Californian company commissioned the Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn to manufacture its iPhones. However, Foxconn did not think much of decent working conditions, which is why the company hit the headlines with a never-ending series of suicides by its employees.

The scandal also affected the image of the US tech giant, which subsequently put pressure on Foxconn to at least slightly improve working conditions. Who would have thought it: Foxconn only improved working conditions after pressure from its largest customer. But the fundamental dilemma remains: Because of the different raw materials and global production chains, it is still (almost) impossible to buy a fair smartphone.

Fairphone alternative: used is new!

So far, so manageable. Apple, Samsung, Google and Xiaomi rightly have no place in this list. Everyone really cares too little about the production conditions and the origin of the raw materials in their smartphones. If anything, the big manufacturers take action when they see their business threatened by a bad image. Anyone who still wants to remain loyal to their beloved brands, for example because they use cloud or other software services from the manufacturers, should look out for so-called refurbished products.

These are returns or exhibits, which usually have minor optical defects, but work perfectly. Before the devices go on sale, they are tested for functionality by experts. There is no manufacturer guarantee, but of course the statutory guarantee obligation of one year applies. Plus point for the used ones: the price is below the new value and there are no costs for new raw materials and transport routes.

Ecosia: The green search engine

Incidentally, it is not just the smartphone that decides how ecological it is, but also how it is used. Streaming services like Netflix and Spotify or social networks like Instagram and Twitter and last but not least Google search are energy-hungry and climate-damaging services. But they don’t have to be, as the search engine Ecosia proves: Ecosia donates 80 percent of the surplus income to non-profit nature conservation organizations.

However, consumers need not fear bad search results, because Ecosia receives them from Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. However, the eco search engine has a problem and that is a market share of only 0.1 percent. Why is that? Well, theoretically you can freely set a default search engine in your browser – for example Ecosia (ecological) or DuckDuckGo (privacy) – and enter a search directly from the link line. However, very few people do that. To make matters worse, Apple, Firefox, Opera are auctioning off

Because Google is the biggest fish in the pond and has the most money, the company regularly buys the first place in the list, keeping the competition small and securing a market share of more than 90 percent. Quite a few critics therefore speak of Google’s monopoly – at least in the western world. Because the company only has serious competition in two countries around the world. They are Russia and China, because the search engines Yandex (Russia) and Baidu (China) are more popular there – and Google is banned.

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