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Fairphone boss: “Profit makes you independent”

Eva Gouwens, head of Fairphone

(Image: Fairphone)

c’t: A fair smartphone, what is that anyway? And what does the Fairphone 4 (read the c’t test here) fairer than its predecessor?

Eva Gouwens: The main problem that makes the smartphone industry so unsustainable is its short life cycles. Every year 1.4 billion smartphones are bought and even more are manufactured. On average, these are used in Europe for 26 months and then only 20 percent are recycled. We are looking for solutions for this: With the Fairphone 4, we are offering a 5-year guarantee for the first time. We produce electronic scrap neutrally, as we call it. That means: For every Fairphone sold, we recycle or recondition one old device. We strive for a circular economy, but we also know that this is not yet a reality. In the coming decade we will continue to be dependent on the extraction of raw materials, on the one hand because the recycling rates are not yet high enough, on the other hand because demand is rising so quickly. Compared to the Fairphone 3, the Fairphone 4 will contain more fair raw materials, but we are not yet ready to only use fair raw materials. For example, we obtain fair gold from some supply chains, but we do not yet use only fair gold for all components.

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c’t: You mentioned the short life cycles. Why is Fairphone launching a new smartphone two years after the Fairphone 3, after almost five years had passed between the Fairphone 2 and the Fairphone 3? A new device is contributing to a kind of psychological obsolescence.

Fairphone introduces the Fairphone 4 (Source: Fairphone)

Gouwens: That is true and that is part of my job: it is full of dilemmas, there is no one right way. With the Fairphone 2 we learned that the distances between two devices can also be too long. This industry is moving so fast, with most manufacturers bringing multiple devices to market each year, that it has been difficult for us to keep our parts promise. The entire supplier industry is designed for this fast rhythm, so it is quite a challenge to provide a buyer who has bought a Fairphone 2 four years after the market launch with all spare parts five years later, i.e. around nine years after the market launch. We weren’t able to plan all of the components in advance, which resulted in waste or bottlenecks. In order to ensure that we can continue to supply spare parts to buyers who buy a Fairphone shortly before the start of a successor for another five years, we had to shorten the distances between the devices.

c’t: A smartphone with high-end components could help that people can still enjoy the smartphone years after buying it and use it for longer. Is it possible for Fairphone to develop a real top smartphone from time to time?

Gouwens: We developed the Fairphone 4 with the idea that it would still be fun even after long periods of use – which is why we have invested in technology such as 5G. But with regard to “high-high-end smartphones”: I don’t think that we will be the pioneers in development, for us it is about keeping the gap to the technological top as small as possible when the smartphone is on the market comes.

c’t: The EU will soon oblige smartphone manufacturers to provide their devices with updates for five years, to make them easier to repair and to keep spare parts in stock. Would Fairphone be anything special then?

Gouwens: I think we’re doing more than just making a fair smartphone. It’s not just about using fair raw materials or building a device in a modular way. We haven’t even talked about things like data protection, that could be something in the future that will move more into our focus, as well as better recycling. I see more than enough space.

c’t: Fairphone has had financial problems in the past. In such situations, does the question arise whether one can do something for sustainability or is it not more about bare survival?

Gouwens: A sustainable company should also operate sustainably, otherwise it cannot realize its plans. Last year we made a profit after many years of losses. Many people have asked me whether it is even fitting that we, as a company driven by a mission, make a profit. And I think that is exactly the key: we once had to pump out investors to order spare parts. Profit makes you independent and gives you more opportunities to invest, develop new products and research.

In c’t 23/21 you will learn about the hackers’ tricks. With the right tools you can crack forgotten passwords, find security gaps in your network and decrypt Word documents. We also analyze what makes WordPress so unique and help you get started and find suitable themes and plug-ins. You can find c’t 23/21 from October 22nd in Heise shop and at the well-stocked newspaper kiosk.


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