The story behind The Fairphone 2

16th June 2015
by Chris Sherwin

Many reading this will have already stumbled across Fairphone, a pioneering start-up bringing ethics to the mobile phone industry. If you haven’t, you should, as it’s one of the best examples of sustainability, entrepreneurship and design in recent years.

Fairphone aims to unveil the story behind the products we buy and use everyday; stories of economic injustice across global supply chains, of environmental exploitation in mining resources and manufacturing electronic components, and of wasteful product obsolescence which bulge landfills and create ‘e-waste’ mountains. They’ve tackled these momentous challenges head-on by designing and launching their very own phone in 2013, as a beacon of how things could and should be done better.

Word is now out about The Fairphone 2 and I’m proud and excited to say we’ve worked on the design of the latest version too. Here’s the story of how we began working with the team at Fairphone:

Back in 2012, I agreed to start mentoring on the excellent Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV), an accelerator program ‘for people who want to change the world using technology’. BGV provides peppercorn funding for seriously early stage digital start-ups to help them formulate their idea and business plan. 

I joined unsure of what we could bring or get, but it’s always great to be around such innovation and energy. At the first meeting I met a group of fantastic entrepreneurs all with seriously high ambitions and fantastic plans; amongst them was Miquel Ballester from a start-up called Fairphone.

They had the audacious plan to design and launch the world’s most ethical phone, using conflict-free materials and fairer labour practices, to put the spotlight on unethical electronics production in ways that went beyond traditional campaigning; which sounded both laudable and hugely ambitious.

Designing and launching a consumer product felt quite close to what we do plus I have a background working in sustainability within the electronics industry, so I was sure we could help. I took the ideas excitedly back to Seymourpowell, discussing it with a few internal stakeholders to see what we could do. It turned out what these start-ups needed the most was advice to help clarify the proposition and opportunity.

We ran a couple of consultation sessions between Fairphone and a smaller SP team, inputting our product design, strategy and brand expertise. There was good energy in these sessions and I was pleased my Seymourpowell colleagues engaged and identified with Fairphone’s plans.

That said our views weren’t always perfectly aligned; I recall us being convinced the opportunity was for a phone that enabled ethical consumer behaviour, whilst Fairphone chose to focus on the ethics of global electronic supply chains and sourcing.

To their great credit and wisdom Fairphone continued down their own path, over the subsequent period the project went stratospheric. They’ve since gone on to successfully launch their first ‘fairer’ phone in 2013 making noise and waves in equal measure. They’ve also been named Europe’s fastest growing start-up and were Community Award winner at the prestigious Sustainia awards. I’ve heard BGV partner Paul Miller call them ‘one of their most successful start-ups ever’.

Towards the middle of 2014 I got a surprise call from Miquel inviting us to pitch for the next Fairphone product, where we subsequently won the job for the industrial design of the new handset.

Details of the design itself, and the processes used to create and make it will continue to unfold in the coming months or by visiting the Fairphone site, but I wanted to end this blog by explaining why the Fairphone project feels like something of a sustainable design milestone for us:

Firstly, it’s a recognisable and highly desirable product category; everyone owns and understands phones and Fairphone customers tend to be early-adopters and innovators, which makes it exciting too. This means ethics and sustainability become normal and understandable, not just for future customers but also for our designers.

Secondly, speaking as Seymourpowell’s Head of Sustainability it’s a delight to have a client with such high ethical ambitions and whose mission and raison d’etre has such a strong social purpose. It certainly makes my job considerably easier. I say ‘bring-on more clients with this level of sustainability ambition; your planet needs you!’

Finally, there’s a virtuous (and symbolic) symmetry in Seymourpowell working on the world’s most ethical phone, as our reputation was largely built on designing the first pocketable mobile phone for Nokia back in 1984. For us, mobile phone design really has come full circle.