Fairphone’s 2023 materials strategy shows that a combination of responsible mining and recycling is the way forward for a fair transition to the inclusive circular electronics industry.
The Dutch social enterprise building a market for ethical smartphones, has announced a shortlist of 14 materials that show high usage in the electronics industry and offer the greatest potential for supply chain improvement. These are aluminum, cobalt, copper, gold, indium, lithium, magnesium, nickel, plastics, rare earth, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc. Fairphone analyzed over 50 materials found in smartphones, resulting in a selection that will guide its responsible sourcing efforts in the coming years. Fairphone makes the most of the materials used in its products and is moving towards a circular economy by using materials from more responsible sources while emphasizing reuse and recycling and designing phones to last as long as possible.
The evaluation used a range of criteria including:
- Market demand growth expected in the coming decades and the availability of recycled supply
- The share of the electronics industry in the worldwide demand for the material
- Whether the material is critical to smartphone functionality
- Whether it will be present in future Fairphone products and accessories
- If there are serious social and environmental issues related to the material’s extraction or recycling
While many of the materials analyzed had serious issues to consider, these 14 materials provide Fairphone with the most potential to make a significant impact and show the most urgent need for intervention.
The global electronics industry is a fast-growing sector with a complex supply chain. Minerals found in common consumer electronics, such as smartphones, are mined, traded, and refined into usable material to manufacture components. Unfortunately, the working environment in the mines can be unsafe with issues of child labor, environmental degradation, and hazardous working conditions recorded. As a result, the electronics industry tends to shy away from it, placing more emphasis on recycling as the solution for the industry’s sourcing issues. Yet, millions of people around the world – particularly in developing economies – rely on the sector for their livelihoods. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is an especially critical source of income for millions of people and as a result, Fairphone is focussing on ASM to make improvements in the sector.
Although Fairphone envisions a world that is truly circular, it’s still far away from becoming reality. Mining will remain a key supplier in the coming years, as the idea that recycling alone will be able to meet humanity’s growing demand is a fairytale. In the coming decades, the population growth and economic development around the world are expected to lead to a sharp increase in demand for metals and non-metallic minerals that are key for the green energy transition. A report by World Bank Group found that demand for some minerals will increase nearly 500% by 2050. Yet, of all electronic waste generated, only 5% of materials are estimated to be recovered for reuse.