Urs Lesse’s background is in the field of political science, but he also has more practical interests.
Every four weeks he dedicates his time to helping people fix their phones in his hometown of Aachen, in western Germany.
But it can’t help with any brand of phone, just a Fairphone call .
For the past eight years, Lesse has been an active member of an unpaid Fairphone user skills exchange network. She organizes local community meetings and helps with repairs.
“I don’t fix phones if I don’t have to, but I’ve always been highly motivated to encourage people to try and fix their own Fairphones themselves , ” he says.
“It’s always been a matter of passing information and taking the inhibition out of people to dare and open their phones ,” he explains.
With a modular design, Fairphone devices allow their owners to easily exchange, repair and customize components such as the screen, battery, USB ports and cameras.
“The Fairphone 2 can be taken apart in less than two minutes,” says Lesse. “There were models where you didn’t even need tools to remove the screen and replace it yourself.”
Recyclable, durable and repairable
Fairphone’s customers range from programmers who have been attracted by the possibilities of phone software to consumers looking for a more sustainable product.
The company started in 2013 and follows four principles: source raw materials from non-conflict mining areas and make products that are recyclable, durable and repairable .
According to figures from the United Nations, a record 53.6 million tons of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, 21% more than five years ago, and mobile phones constitute a significant part of this. Furthermore, only 17% of e-waste was recycled .
Fairphone argues that by making phones easy to repair, they can have a longer lifespan, generate less waste and therefore have a positive impact on the environment.
“We know that by increasing the lifespan of a phone by at least two years, you get a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions, ” says Fairphone co-founder Miquel Ballester.
So far, the Dutch-based company has sold around 400,000 devices, meaning it is a very small player in the smartphone market.
“Fairphone is still a niche product, which you can’t find in many stores , which is why the community network is important,” says Lesse.
However, Fairphone has made an impact within the industry, particularly in Germany, where it has garnered significant support.
Germany awarded Fairphone numerous certifications and awards, including the 2016 German Environmental Award, the highest-paid environmental award in Europe.
Ballester believes this government recognition, as opposed to industry recommendations, is one of the reasons Fairphone gained such a following in Germany compared to other European markets.
Germans tend to be less attached to the status of big companies and therefore more inclined to try smaller European brands, the company says.
In Hamburg, Ingo Strauch also volunteers to help other users. He says many cite the phone’s data privacy and ease of use over its environmental benefits.
The company’s popularity in Germany could also be due to individual purchasing power. “Germany is a rich country. Therefore, the willingness to spend more for an apparently fair product is also higher,” says Lesse.
Fairphone says that its priority is not just growth, but that it wants to change the way the industry works .
“We don’t want to necessarily become the biggest in the industry, but we want to become the most influential and make sure other manufacturers mirror some of the initiatives that we have ,” says Ballester.
There is some evidence of changing preferences in society at large, says Professor Sigrid Kannengiesser, who specializes in media practices and sustainability at the University of Bremen.
Kannengiesser points to the rise of repair cafes in Western Europe and North America, and also to the European Commission’s recent announcement establishing the right to repair ,
“Consumers, politicians, but also some actors in the economy understand that our societies and the way of life of many people must become more sustainable ,” says Kannengiesser.
The big players in the industry have been taking notice. Last year, Apple launched its “self-service repair” initiative, which gives customers access to Apple parts and tools.
“Self Service Repair is intended for individual technicians with the knowledge and experience to repair electronic devices,” the US company said.
“It will never have a great power”
So how does Fairphone’s latest model, the Fairphone 4, compare to other phones?
Chris Hall of the device website Pocket-lint.com is very optimistic: “The Fairphone 4 is a solid mid-range device, but its unique advantage is sustainability, rather than outstanding performance in any other area.”
“It’s impressive that it offers some water resistance, but it’s not protected to the same extent as flagship phones. That’s a minor drawback considering this is a mid-range device,” he adds.
“As such, while it offers reasonable performance, it will never be very powerful,” he says.
Collaboration between companies
Fairphone isn’t the only phone maker to focus on sustainability. Family -owned, Germany-based Shiftphones , founded in 2014, also developed a sustainable modular smartphone .
Sales have doubled every year in the last six years, but it’s also a small player, with 70,000 devices shipped.
Shiftphones founder and CEO Samuel Waldeck believes the collaboration would improve the two companies’ ability to influence their larger competitors.
“I think it would be a very important signal to work together, and also for the rest of the market,” he says.
“The whole industry is working against you (…) if you join forces you would have more units, which would change a lot.”
- francesca schweiger
- Business journalist, Berlin