Q&A  | 

Ethical electronics with Miquel Ballester of Fairphone

"In 2019 the world generated 53.6 megatons of e-waste, an average of 7.3 kg per capita".


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Miquel Ballester is design lead and co-founder of Fairphone, the pioneer of ethical electronics and maker of the Fairphone 3, considered by some to be the most ethical and repairable smartphone in the market. The Dutch company made the world’s first “fair” smartphone challenging the conventions of how a phone should be made. They sourced materials responsibly, improved working conditions, created longer-lasting devices through innovative modular designs, and encouraged better reuse and recycling practices.

Can you give us an overview of your work?

By establishing a market for ethical electronics, we motivate the electronics industry to act more responsibly. Ethical means a holistic approach to sustainability, both people and planet. How do we achieve this? Our ‘theory of change’ consists of three strategies: Raise awareness. We uncover the complex supply chains behind electronic products and communicate transparently about it to a wide group of people. All to create awareness around issues in this industry; Set the example.

We develop, produce and sell smartphones that are ethical and commercially successful and create followers. With key actors in the supply chains, we motivate the industry to make caring for people and planet a standard part of doing business.

What is Fairphone?

Fairphone makes a smartphone to motivate the industry to look at social and environmental issues in the electronics supply chain.

We have defined four areas in which we want to create change: long-lasting design, fair materials, good working conditions and reuse/recycling.

In each area, we are step-by-step pioneering change and improving our phone and our own supply chain, thereby raising the bar for others in the industry to follow and join us on our journey for fairer electronics.

What's the current environmental impact of the (non environmental friendly) smartphone industry?

  • 1.5 billion mobile phones are sold worldwide every year, while the average lifetime of a phone is 2-3 years and according to the EPA, less than 20% of phones are recycled.
  • Recycling is only a partial solution to the problem
    • The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 shows that, globally, only 17.4% of e-waste is documented to be formally collected and recycled ( and the world generates 53.6m metric tons (mt) of e-waste.
    • According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, “the recycling sector is often confronted with high costs of recycling and challenges in recycling the materials. For instance, the recovery of some materials such as germanium and indium is challenging because of their dispersed use in products, and the products are neither designed nor assembled with recycling principles having been taken into account.” 
    • While some discarded devices are properly recycled, others are recycled under dangerous working conditions or end up in landfills.
  • The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, found that in 2019, the world generated a striking 53.6 Mt of e-waste, an average of 7.3 kg per capita. 
    • The global generation of e-waste grew by 9.2 Mt since 2014 and is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030 – almost doubling in only 16 years. 
    • Europe ranked first worldwide in terms of e-waste generation per capita, with 16.2 kg per capita. 
    • The growing amount of e-waste is mainly fueled by higher consumption rates of EEE, short life cycles, and few repair options. 

What do we understand by blood metals used in the tech industry and can you explain some specific cases?

These include some of our focus materials such as cobalt, copper, gold, lithium, tin, tungsten and rare earth elements.

Is it possible to produce a 'blood free' phone, and what are the downsides, if any?

Since our main goal is to create a fairer economy where consideration for people and environment is a natural part of doing business, we want to stimulate discussions about fairness and what it means.

As the definition varies from person to person, a 100% fair phone is in fact unachievable. But it is certainly possible to make products fairer than they currently are. This is what we are busy with at our company, step-by-step trying to create a fairer phone.

It is a global complex supply chain. Making fair electronics involves tackling issues that cannot be changed overnight. This is the territory of competition, globalization, and division of labor: they are complex, interconnected systems. And our mission is to unfold this complexity. Making a phone helps us open up the processes behind production, and, one step at a time, address challenging problems.

Is the industry taking any steps as to become more ethical, and can you mention any specific cases?

It’s great to see the industry picking up on sustainable design more and the added value it can offer. We are positive about any initiative that makes fairness a part of their proposition and is marketing fairer electronics, but we can not verify or vouch for any other company’s activities. It is up to the consumer to decide whether a product is ‘fair enough’, that is why we are transparent about our step-by-step approach to making the Fairphone and our impact in doing so. 

For example, modularity can be used for different purposes. We use modularity to reduce the environmental footprint and increase the lifespan by facilitating repair. But you can also use modularity just for the sake of fashion or fast-paced technological upgrades, but that could go at the expense of the environment and is therefore not our focus.

Is your production model exportable to other digital devices?

In fact, our production happens at the same type of companies and we often share some suppliers with other well-known companies.

We are producing a smartphone in the market with a large commercial footprint and available in many european countries through operators so it is definitely exportable to other products as well. The issues around short live cycles and difficult repairs are not exclusive to smartphones.

Is society ready to prioritise ethics over performance?

We believe these solutions can be adopted by others, it’s possible to make ethical choices in your business and supply chain and be commercially successful. Our mission is to build a market for ethical phones and motivate the industry to act more responsibly, we want them to follow our call to action.