It’s not fair! (but my phone is…)


Conflict-free washed tungsten. (Photo from  Fairphone website)

“It’s not fair!” Thus spake Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, opening a talk on living wages (or rather lack of them). Well, not “spake” so much as shouted. At decibels sufficient to be a wake-up call in the post-lunch torpor of the assembled company.

Fairness is one of the intrinsic principles that children grasp from an early age – and we make judgements all through life about how to respond to unfairness, whether it is we ourselves or others that are the recipients of the short stick.

I was brought up in a society and at a time where/when huge differences in salary and status were considered normal and natural. As I grew up I started to see this as unfair and to try to work against it.

Unfairness is particularly stark in today’s global economy;  just 85 people now own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. Millions toil for long hours in return for a pittance in farms, plantations, factories, quarries and on fishing vessels producing goods – and large profits – for others.

I hasten to explain that I’m talking about fairness in the sense of justice or equality, not in the sense of complexion (a misunderstanding that allegedly caused some awkwardness in India when Oxfam claimed to be working for a “fairer world”).

Efforts to redress this unfairness are fraught with difficulty. The global village is a highly complex construct with a seemingly infinite number of vested interests and interdependencies, visible and invisible.

Yet one company seems to have found a way to slice through it all. Fairphone.

From the no-frills brown cardboard packaging it arrives in, to the modular design (meaning you can take it apart yourself for easy fixes and upgrades), to the tough built-in cover to the fact it doesn’t come with a charger (“you’ve probably already got several at home”) – it goes against the grain of the seller holding all the cards.

Oh, and talking of cards, Fairphones are not locked, so you can use your own sim card in them. Or two sim cards, even.

One of the standard screen-savers they offer is the image above of miners in the DRC holding a handful of the conflict-free tungsten they’ve just dug up and which helps the phone now clutched in your own sweaty hand to vibrate.

Videos on their website show the social enterprise’s staff tracking down the goldmine which produces the gold used in making its electrical connectors. (“It feels safe”), and working with the factory that assembles the phones to set up a worker welfare fund managed by workers themselves.

Whenever there’s an exposé along the lines of “Beyoncé’s t-shirt made by sweatshop workers!” – I want to scream you could pretty much replace Beyoncé’s name with any celebrity’s name, or anyone’s name, for that matter, including your own. Because, truth be told, there are very few garments – or modern day products – that are not made under such conditions.

So, if you went looking for it, I’m sure you would find some example of unfairness – child labour, or lower than living wages, or long working hours – in Fairphone’s supply chain, but you have to admit they’ve gone several extra miles to guard against it.

Kudos to them.

A company that even attempts to extract itself from that morass is courageous indeed. It’s probably a bit easier to do with a five hundred Euro phone than a five pound t-shirt, or with a cheap, ubiquitous commodity like tea – but admirable nevertheless.

Some other companies whose conscience has been wakened by Dr Sentamu’s cri de coeur may want to take note. Not quite living wages yet, but greater fairness? It can be done.

The strapline is ‘Buy a Fairphone. Join a movement.’ That’s just what I feel like I’ve done, and I have the  warm fuzzy glow to prove it.

I’m not yet quite ready to have a Fairphone tattoo done, though.


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