I own an $80 Huawei smartphone. It is probably the least smart of smartphones on the market but it allows me to make phone calls, use WhatsApp to chat with friends, take photos and upload them to Facebook and listen to music on Pandora. A decade ago, you would have needed a phone, a camera, a computer and some sort of music player to perform most of these tasks. So technology has made our lives exponentially easier,* but therein lies the problem. What exactly goes into the manufacture of a smartphone? And at what cost to others have our lives become easier?
Photographer Marcus Bleasdale's photo essay, The Price of Precious, highlights the major problem of conflict minerals that are used in most of the electronic devices manufactured today. His photographs tell part of the story of how mineral mining in the Congo, largely for use in electronic devices, has contributed to unspeakable violence. An excerpt of his text reads:
[The Democratic Republic of the]Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it—trillions’ worth of natural resources. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop—or camera or gaming system or gold necklace—may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.
Thinking about my own phone, as an example, and the way it has contributed to the "Congo's pain" led me to the Huawei website. The company has gone to the effort of writing a statement on conflict minerals. On the surface, acknowledging the problem is a step in the right direction but in reality the vague statement is a trivial attempt to ease the consumer's mind without actually detailing how accountability or ethics are enforced. Huawei continues this greenwashing with their Sustainability Summary Report. While the report shows the company has contributed to global, non- profit projects and there are measures in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it does not mention conflict minerals nor detail specifics about factory workers' wages and working conditions. Like most electronic companies, Huawei has taken some steps towards corporate social responsibility but it is questionable to what extent these translate into tangible and sustainable results.
So, is it possible to buy an ethical smartphone?
According to a Salon article, the short answer is no. But the paradox is that you can use your smartphone, tablet or laptop to learn more and raise awareness about conflict minerals which in turn may pressure companies and governments to seek ethical alternatives. More so, there is a new breed of smartphone in the mix.
FairPhone is a social enterprise based in Amsterdam that are producing the world's first ethical phone. According to the company's website, "the main motivation for founding FairPhone was to develop a mobile device which does not contain conflict minerals and with fair labor conditions for the workforce along the supply chain." According to an Intercontinental Cry article, the company has joined the conflict-free tin initiative and the Solutions for Hope Project which certify the conflict-free status of the tin and coltan (tantalum) that goes into smartphones. They are also addressing the problem of e-waste by working with Closing The Loop "to buy discarded scrap from affected areas, processing what can be safely recovered locally and shipping the rest to professional recyclers in Europe." Unfortunately it is currently only available in the UK and Europe but FairPhone does have plans to expand their shipping following the production of the first phone model.
While FairPhone is a step in the right direction, there is not yet a universal, ethical alternative that is for sale on the mainstream market. But as Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association has said, “none of us want to be accessories after the fact in a human rights abuse in the global supply chain"—and as companies come to acknowledge this, we will hopefully begin to see an increase in ethical options.
*I would argue that life has also become far more complicated with the advent of smartphones, social media and other technologies that while being used for communication are also largely recreational.