How taking my FP to Cambodia taught me how "unfair" the phone really is

From my perspective as a European customer back in 2013, the FP model seemed like a reasonable crack at the tough issues of fairness in wages, environment, and re-usability (longevity). As a do-it-yourself kind of person, I was excited to spend the next 5 years fixing, tinkering, upgrading and making good use of my FP, and feeling good that it was originally produced under better conditions than otherwise predominate in this industry.

This honeymoon ended when I moved to Cambodia.

Like many poorer countries, Cambodia is awash with mobile phone shops and their respective technicians - thereby employing mountains of people in the pursuit of maintaining open, affordable, and long-lasting phones. These are well-paying jobs too. If you can unlock, re-install, jailbreak, evaluate quality, and fix phones, you can make a reasonable salary, all while stretching the utility and lifespan of phones.

When I brought my like-new FP to one of these shopkeepers and explained what it was, he said he would give me $100… and this much only because it was a cool one-of-a-kind. The price wouldn’t be high, he said, because it would be a hard sell for his market. Yes, it was dual-SIM, bonus points there. And yes, it was unlocked but they can pretty much unlock any phone these days. But otherwise, standard cases don’t fit, replacement parts are hard to find, YouTube fix-it videos are not yet at a critical mass, and the battery was a unique type. Indeed, just this last point alone caused me 5 weeks of grief as I suffered the infamous “swollen battery” syndrome and had to negotiate hard to get a battery sent to Cambodia from Holland.

Even FP’s claim to software “openness” turned out to be hollow: he asked me why I was still using Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean), when he can pretty much upgrade any Samsung to at least 4.4 or sometimes 5.0. Upgrade-ability --> more apps are compatible --> longer relevance (especially for young gamers).

So, in a real-world test of FP’s relevance in poor countries (which is a test of its longevitiy, re-usability), FP fails pretty miserably. In fact, just by leaving Europe to live in a poor country, I put myself in a vulnerable position, unable to even get a new battery.

Yes, Fairphone wages and environmental conditions might be marginally better, but what about all those potentially lost wages for smartphone technicians in poor countries due to its (in practice) poor longevity? Is this just another Fairtrade product for rich people?

7 Likes

@Hart: there are of course a lot of items that could be added to your list of FP flaws. It is not biodegradable, for instance. Nor has it prevented Russian aggression in Ukraine or the Ebola epidemic.

In other words: I find your complaints about FP’s lack of fairness a bit ‘unfair’ or, rather, unjust, and also misdirected. First, you ought to consider the starting point of the project, to “raise awareness about conflict minerals in electronics and the wars that they fuel and fund” (quote from the FP website). Working conditions in the assembly factories was also an issue. And, yes, longevity/recycling.

Maybe the most important thing here is the words ‘raise awareness’. The FP phone cannot in itself change the world. Hitherto, 60,000 phones have been produced. Globally, some 2,000,000,000 smartphones are produced every year. FP’s immediate impact is therefore nothing but a pee in the Atlantic Ocean, and if you expect the FP to have, after a year, solved all problems related to the production of electronic goods, from raw material to concern for repair staff in Cambodia and Nigeria, you are expecting a lot.

Your complaints about the lack of instantly available spare parts in Cambodia also surprises me. The FP was designed for, and marketed as, a product for the European market. A reasonable limitation to start with. That the FP team may have difficulties sending spare parts to the other end of the world might of course be annoying, but honestly - aren’t you expecting too much from a comparatively small team of enthusiasts? The fact that you can order spare parts, and change them yourself if you’re handy enough, is in itself a step towards longevity. Try order a replacement camera or earpiece speaker from Apple’s website… And if the FP team for some reason can’t deliver, it oughtn’t be too difficult to ask a friend or relative in Europe to order the parts needed (battery included) and then forward the item to you.

If immediate access to cheap spare parts and swift repair jobs is your main concern, then of course the iPhone is probably your best choice. Don’t forget to send a postcard with thanks to the workers at Foxconn in Shenzhen.

14 Likes

@kgha: I supported the Fairphone in its crowd-funding days and continue to believe in its mission; accusing me of not caring about assembly or mining conditions is more disingenuous than any of the very practical critiques that I have levied in this post.

As for your other argument, that the FP is only or primarily about “raising awareness”, I think we can all call you out on that. There is no reason that Fairphone cannot do this while also delivering on a few strategic issues that make the phone longer-lasting and more usable in its end-of-life phase. Yes, we all like the online spare-parts store just like we like the local auto-parts store – but ultimately the “wrecker” (where you can scavenge original parts from comparable cars) is the more efficient solution, especially since every Cambodian mobile phone shop functions as its own little “wrecker”. We hate it when car companies adjust things just to create ‘planned obsolescence’ or when Apple’s new USB plug causes years of compatibility grief. Why is it too much to expect that Fairphone would have considered this? Or do you believe that having an earpiece delivered in 300grams of cardboard and plastic packaging via China over Holland is the ideal?

Some of these issues are more systemic than others, so I won’t lay all of this on FP. But the battery issue is inexcusable. There are only a few electrical and form-factor considerations to plan for that could have prevented this critical longevity issue, but they blew it. In fact, one should probably argue that because they only rolled out in Europe, compatibility on basic spare parts should have been more urgent so that these phones had any chance of being usable for a few more years in poorer countries (which was, if you remember an explicit goal of theirs - see the discussions about dual-SIM). Instead, irreparable phones are unlikely to be scavenged for parts and end up requiring more new parts and more raw materials. Worse, a phone like this just plain isn’t demanded by poor people because of these problems.

2 Likes

At least you can remove it and change :wink:
Maybe a future iPhone 7ultraplusmegafantastic will have a battery which will bloat after 1 month of use, and all the customers will be happy to take their 900$ phone to their reseller to buy a new iPhone 7ultraplusmegafantasticExtraBattery…

Joke apart: I would agree with your points if we could compare the sizes of Apple, Samsung and Fairphone enterprises, but numbers win in a market when millions of devices (not only phones) are produced, sold and dropped away…I don’t think Fairphone could ever have numbers to achieve the same capillarity of spare parts availability in any country of the world (though I hope to :wink: )

1 Like

If you had stated this clearly in your first post, my reply would have been another. It was, however, difficult to deduce your belief in the FP mission from your concluding, rhetorical question: “Is this just another Fairtrade product for rich people?” and ypur implication that marginally improved environmental conditions weighs little compared to the potential income loss for smartphone technicians.

2 Likes

I hate to say it, but: sometimes if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em.

Aligning or ‘harmonizing’ (technobable version) with Samsung’s (or another big company’s) standard does not necessarily mean giving up on the ideals for production and resource extraction.

Thank you @Hart for your experience report and your ideas. I hope Fairephone can learn from this for FP2 and do thinks better.

I’m not surprised that Fairphone is not perfect had not considered every aspect of reuse. I think for FP2 it would a good idea if the new battery would be compatible with a more common model, maybe compatible to a popular Samsung phone (because they are sold in huge numbers). I hope this can be done also for legal issuers, I remember, that printer manufacturer did the strangest thinks to prevent copys of there ink cadriges. Including patent the design of the sponge that holds the inc. I’m not sure if phone manufacturers do similar thinks with there battery. But if it is posible it would be a good idea to aspire to be more compatible to the parts of other, more popular manufactures.

regards,
Shiny

4 Likes

I see what you are saying, and I understand your point very well. If I got it right, you are saying, that the FP should have used a Samsung’s battery.

But is this even possible? Why should Samsung cooperate with a small company like FP? I am sure they have loads of patents, which they won’t share with other companies.

1 Like

The generic battery market is full of such examples. Often, manufacturer’s stop producing original (OEM) batteries after 2-3 years and your only choice is a third-market variety. But the worst case scenario is that FP licenses whatever they need from Samsung (or, more typically, from the company that provides Samsung their batteries) so that Galaxy-variety batteries can be used.

To be honest, like most smartphones, the FP is already a Frankenstein of technology from many different companies, they just didn’t think through the compatibility aspect.

To be fair, there was some talk of seconds markets for the Fairphone. For example dual-sim was an aspect that should increase usability in countries with less good reception.

You are right, but @Hart’s experience contains important lessons for the Fairphone. It raises the question if it is better to go for models that are sold worldwide and in very large quantities like the Galaxy S3 for example for repairability and spare parts.
However, the Fairphone is only a first step and i expect the FP2 to be the second step on a long road towards fairer phones.
Is somebody in cambodia or vietnam better of with a phone with high as possible market share? Probably. But let’s be honest: This is not what the Fairphone was marketed for and the current focus is on supply chain - at least this is my impression.

Additionaly, Fairphone sponsered an IFIXIT guide for the FP1 for example.

Anyway: Thank you @Hart for sharing. I am pretty sure your experiences are valuable for Fairphone! What do you think @anon90052001?

2 Likes

This thread proves that Fairphone is working exactly as intended. @Hart is complaining about the fairness of the phone and comes with arguments that the average Joe consumer wouldn’t even consider. Sounds to me like awareness has been raised with @Hart. Ergo: mission accomplished :wink:

4 Likes

I’m sorry but I totally disagree with this statement; saying this is a lesson for the Fairphone would be equal to say fairtrade products are niche only and it’s right to buy not-fairtrade because of their availability in higher quantities and lower prices…
I never expected Fairphone’s phones become mass products with the same support of big companies’ ones, at least in few years.
“Fair” concept is a way-of-life, as organic food, fairtrade products and so on, they are not (yet) for large masses, but they have the mission to let people know another way of thinking is possible, not as a big bang but as a little “good virus”.
People don’t need sensational messages, because they tend to forget them as fast as they receive them, I think there is a need of slow and deep thinking, not simply "advertising"
And for electronics the problem is in greater scale because market and advertising tend to force people to buy up-to-date products because they’re faster, lighter, larger (or smaller) than the previous ones (only 3 months older in some cases) and this is what I don’t expect and don’t want from Fairphone.
I didn’t expect this also when I bought my OpenMoko phone or my Nokia N900, each with its unique characteristics but each one compliant with some aspects of my viewpoint of life, and at the same way as I am a strong supporter of Free (as in freedom) and open source software.
I know I will not do any revolution but I try to do my part and cooperate with all the ones who try to make a better world :smile:

6 Likes

I was unclear: I did not want to say that it is generally better, but in the specific case of going abroad or buying a phone with your main focus on repairs and spare parts support, it might be better to buy a more common model. I for example got a galaxy s3 mini with a complete broken screen. It was a matter of ten minutes on ebay and three days latter I had a new display glass in my mail. Later it turned out that the battery was dead: I walked I a local electronics shop and bought one. All in all I paid 25eu and have a perfectly working phone again.

This is hard to match, even more so worldwide…

Yes, for that I agree with you but maybe those spare parts are not coming from countries which adhere to the Fairphone mission, so I fear this kind of hardware standardization does not comply with this project :smile:
What I hope is to get both situations: standard spare parts which are in line with Fairphone project, and available everywhere and in simple way, and this is what I expect from FP2

1 Like

Dramatic subject line aside, this is more-or-less what I intended to say. If ‘fairness’ in mining/manufacture are achieved without achieving longevity, then the phone (and its inherent natural resources) will be thrown away earlier than necessary, thereby creating demand for more resources (that might not be mined according to our principles). The social impacts of older (Fair)phones being re-used by low-income people is also a potential byproduct of longevity.

My argument about the Fairphone here can be rephrased using @DjDas comparison with fairtrade or organic products. If I bought a Fairtrade cotton shirt, but it degraded twice as fast as a mainstream brand cotton shirt, I would justifiably think less of Fairtrade cotton’s environmental and perhaps social performance. These critiques can be made alongside respect for the original intention.

1 Like

Dear @Hart and others following this thread,

Members of the Fairphone Support team have taken in your feedback, and we are working to improve our repair and delivery process.

However, the fact remains that our shipping and logistics systems are aimed for the European market, and we are not set up to accommodate for shipping spare parts outside Europe.

We have clarified this point in the warranty of our website, and we have written an explanation of our shipping policy here.

I’ll excerpt the most important part below. Apologies for any negative experience you have had, and I hope this clears up any questions about our shipping and repair process.

Fairphone only ships, returns, or repairs within the European Union and some additional European countries. We tried to help some customers (going beyond our warranty policy) by returning repaired Fairphone products to addresses outside Europe. But that created a lot of additional work and confusion for our small team. Our company return logistics are simply not set up for that.

We have clarified our Fairphone and spare parts warranties to reflect this. In case you bought a Fairphone or spare part in Europe, and now you are traveling or living outside Europe, we want to help you. We will repair your phone, but you must send your phone directly to our repair center in the Netherlands - arranging and paying for transport yourself. When we return it, you should present a European address for us to send the materials back. You should then arrange and pay for further shipping options yourself if required outside Europe.

If your product is within warranty, Fairphone can compensate a fair amount that will cover the cost of shipping within Europe.

This policy is in place because Fairphone is not set up to handle shipping any parts, including batteries, outside Europe, based on logistics, tax, or customs requirements. That is why we require that the customer should arrange shipping logistics and pay for shipping costs when the shipping address is outside Europe.

5 Likes

Sorry, I only read the first post and seeing the volume of the following discussion makes me wonder if I’m right to feed the troll, but:

I think Hart’s critique is not relevant, even if all he writes is true.

I mean, I won’t blame a car brand for selling a “not-so-ecological” electrical car just because I couldn’t find a proper socket to recharge it in Cambodia, or just because no car repair shop could handle it there. So what do we do? We just give up on the idea of electrical cars because we can’t use them in Cambodia?

(Please, troll fellows, I know an electrical car is not necessarily environment-friendly, but this was just an example)

We all somehow know that when we buy a fairphone (especially the first edition), we won’t have the same fluent experience than with a Samsung, as well as we know when we buy an electric car in 2015, we won’t have the same fluent experience than with a benzine wide-spread model of car.

And about the jobs issue: in poorer countries, those technicians in small shops adjust their skills and activities in order to make some money, day after day, without any long-term strategy to change the world, obviously. Make Fairphone huge and they WILL know how to repair it, where to buy spare parts or compatible (but often not original) batteries to always have some stock etc.

If you think that a fair phone, caring for the poor (to put it short), is the phone that will allow you to live a happy connected life among the poor, in a Nigerian remote village, I think you misunderstood the whole point.

Actually I am also living most of the time in poorer countries, and I witness people making a living by taking part in a system that kills them. It can be Asians working for Samsung’s suppliers, Nigerians collecting uranium and dying from it for the French nuclear industry etc. Those technicians you talk about are just trying to grab some crumbs the unfair phone system allows them to grab.

They would love a better system but don’t have any means to change it, and they have to adjust to it. And when they see humanitarian/development workers, they tell us: “What you do for us is very nice, but you have the huge luck to be allowed to stay in Europe, speak out loud and act there. And that is the place where systems are being built and led (with China and the US, of course). If you want to improve a system that harms us, you can do nothing else than improving it in Europe”. So for a long-term ACTUAL change of the phone business, I think the fairphone strategy is the best, even if a bit slow-growing and maybe frustrating at times.

10 Likes