The dark side of the mobile supply chain is being exposed – you won’t like what you see

The complex web of producers that makes up the electronics supply chain has allowed social and environmental abuses to go unpunished, but change is afoot

There is a hidden side to the mobile supply chain, one which should worry consumers and suppliers alike

The complex and global nature of the electronics supply chain means it takes hundreds – if not thousands – of people and more than 40 minerals to produce a bog-standard smartphone. “And that’s really just the bottom”, said Daria Koreniushkina, Public Engagement Officer at Fairphone. “Those minerals are mined all over the globe, having already gone through quite a few steps, again in different parts of the world. Before that the parts are smelted, refined, sent to the component manufacturer – maybe a second component manufacturer – and then to their final assembly location – primarily in Asia – before being shipped to customers.” Impressive though it is, the journey from mine to market is not without consequences.

Increasingly, consumers are paying heed to some of the more contentious issues dogging the process. Though social and environmental goals are, more often than not, kept to one side, the influence of companies such as Fairphone is beginning to tell. Conflict minerals and inadequate working conditions are the most controversial issues, and, as with any other global supply chain cost saving, efficiencies have been shown to exert a heavy toll.

A 2014 investigation by the BBC’s Panorama programme exposed dismal working conditions in Chinese factories tasked with churning out Apple products. The film showed exhausted workers falling asleep on the production line, with one undercover reporter forced to work 18 consecutive days in spite of repeated requests for time off.

In the UK, there are as many as 125 million unused phones – meaning that, for every mobile in use, up to four sit idle

“Every time I got back to the dormitories, I wouldn’t want to move”, said a worker whose longest shift was 16 hours. “Even if I was hungry, I wouldn’t want to get up to eat. I just wanted to lie down and rest. I was unable to sleep at night because of the stress.”

Sadly, Apple is not the exception; such conditions are common in an industry hell-bent on efficiency savings.

A broken model
Combining the patchwork pattern of suppliers, manufacturers and miners is admittedly no easy task, but this impenetrable web has allowed hardware manufacturers to skirt their responsibilities to their workers. Though sustainability isn’t completely neglected by corporations, it is, according to Koreniushkina, often “disconnected from the core of the business”.

The energy it takes to extract and refine the 40 or so precious metals that go into a smartphone – not to mention the added costs of a gadget industry built on planned obsolescence – are startling. Worse still, some of these issues are perpetuated by consumers.

Almost $2bn worth of Apple devices were sold on eBay in the US in 2013, and NextWorth estimated the value of the American trade-in market to be more than $3bn. What’s more, figures from the Green Alliance show the market for used devices is growing, with sales expected to reach 257 million in 2018, up from 53 million in 2013. Despite this, only 12 percent of smartphone upgrades involved the sale or trade of an old device. In the UK, there are as many as 125 million unused phones – meaning that, for every mobile in use, up to four sit idle.

“The current business model of mobile contracts encourages consumers to upgrade frequently, regardless of whether their current phone is fit for purpose”, said James Suckling, a researcher from the University of Surrey. “This isn’t a trend that can continue if we are to have the mobile lifestyle we want, while still ensuring a sustainable future.”

Were consumers more aware of the environmental and human costs of getting a smartphone to market, mobile companies would likely face greater pressure to change their ways. Granted, accountability for these issues runs from top to bottom, but without a sudden shift in demand, abuses on the supply side will continue to escape punishment.

This is where Fairphone comes in. The Amsterdam-based company is a social enterprise focused on building a movement for fairer electronics. The company line is that, by building a phone of its own, it can open up the supply chain and foster new relationships between people and products.

“That’s basically how we see our role in the industry”, said Koreniushkina. “We can influence demand. And for as long as there are people who want more ethical, more long-lasting products, this can motivate the entire industry to act more responsibly. On the other hand, we are influencing the supply chain by experimenting and running innovative projects to source materials more responsibly, improve working conditions at the factories, innovate in design and extend the lifecycle of the product.” By making a positive impact across the value chain in mining, design, manufacturing and life cycle, reason has it Fairphone will expand the market for products that put ethical values first.

Fairphone started out as a campaign for fairer electronics, and this commitment shows in the company’s methods. It began with trips to copper and cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and this year the company established the first pilot supply chain for Fairtrade-certified gold in the electronics industry. In terms of product, the Fairphone 2 design is focused on reparability, and the modular design is such that customers can easily replace parts, further extending the lifecycle of the product.

Supply chain
By mapping the supply chain, tracing the materials, and identifying opportunities for making social and environmental improvements, Fairphone is exerting pressure on the industry to follow suit and make information about its global footprint public. Ultimately, the aim is to, if not boost visible demand, at least raise awareness on the consumer side about some of the question marks hanging over the supply chain. As one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world, electronics companies have a joint responsibility to resolve the environmental and social ills plaguing the production process.

Most of the steps in the production process are far removed from the end user, and consumers hungry for the ‘next new thing’ are as much to blame for an industry built on planned obsolescence as corporations. Greater transparency about the pains inflicted on people and the environment in the name of efficiency is a good place to start if the industry is to shake its less-than-stellar reputation.

“The supply chain can easily include hundreds, sometimes thousands of actors all over the globe, and identifying more responsible sources is a major challenge”, said Koreniushkina. “Beyond that, if you look at the issues at production facilities such as low wages or overtime, these are all systemic issues. These are not things that can be changed overnight or by just one company, no matter how big the company. So, it should all be a joint effort.”

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