- By Francesca Schweiger
- Business Reporter, Berlin
Urs Lesse specializes in political science, but he is also interested in more practical matters, and every four weeks he gives his time to help people repair their phones in his hometown of Aachen in western Germany.
But he can not help you with any phone brand – only a brand called Fairphone.
For eight years, Mr. Lesse has been an active member of an unpaid network of skills sharing among dedicated Fairphone users. He organizes community meetings and participates in repairs.
“I do not repair phones if I do not have to, but I have always been very motivated to encourage people to try to repair their Fairphones themselves,” he explains.
“It has always been about disseminating information and removing people’s inhibition of daring and opening their phones,” he explains.
Thanks to their modular design, Fairphone devices allow their owners to easily replace, repair and customize components such as monitor, battery, USB ports and cameras.
“The Fairphone 2 could be disassembled in less than two minutes,” says Lesse. “There were models where you did not even need the tool to remove the screen to replace it yourself.”
Fairphone’s customers range from programmers who have been attracted to the software features of the phones, to consumers who are looking for a more durable product.
The company was founded in 2013 and follows four principles: procurement of raw materials from conflict-free mining areas and production of products that are recyclable, durable and repairable.
According to UN figures, a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste were generated globally in 2019 – an increase of 21% in just five years – of which mobile phones make up a significant part of it. In addition, only 17% of electronic waste has been recycled.
Fairphone claims that by making phones easy to repair, they can last longer, generate less waste and thus have a positive impact on the environment.
“We know that by extending the life of a phone by at least two years, you’re getting a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions,” explains Miquel Ballester, co-founder of Fairphone.
The Dutch company has sold around 400,000 units so far – which means it is a very small player in the smartphone market.
“Fairphone is still a niche product that is not found in many stores, so the community network is important,” says Lesse.
Nevertheless, Fairphone has created waves in the industry, especially in Germany, where it has received strong support.
Germany has awarded Fairphone several certifications and awards, including the 2016 German Environmental Award, Europe’s most lucrative environmental award.
Ballester believes that this government’s recognition, contrary to the industry’s market recommendations, is one of the reasons why Fairphone has gained such a large following in Germany compared to other European markets.
According to the company, Germans are generally less attached to the status of big brands and are therefore more likely to try small European brands.
In Hamburg, Ingo Strauch, who also volunteers to help other users, says many people mention the phone’s data protection and usability rather than its environmental benefits.
The company’s popularity in Germany may also be due to the Germans’ individual purchasing power. “Germany is a rich country. The desire to put your hands in your pocket to get a seemingly fair product is therefore also stronger,” Mr Lesse explains.
Fairphone says its priority is not just growth, it wants to change the way the industry works. “We do not necessarily want to be the largest in the industry, but we want to be the most influential and have other manufacturers take some of our initiatives to heart,” says Ballester.
According to Professor Sigrid Kannengiesser, a specialist in media practice and sustainability at the University of Bremen, there are signs of a shift in preference in society as a whole.
She emphasized the emergence of repair cafes in Western Europe and North America, as well as the recent announcement by the European Commission to establish a right to repair. “Consumers, politicians and also certain economic actors understand that our society and the way of life of many people must become more sustainable,” says Professor Kannengiesser.
Major industry players have noticed this. 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 company says.
So how is Fairphone’s latest model, Fairphone 4, compared to other mobiles?
Chris Hall from the gadget site Pocket-lint.com is largely positive: “The Fairphone 4 is a solid mid-range device, but its only selling point is durability rather than outstanding performance in another area.
“It’s impressive that it provides some waterproofing, but it’s not as protected as advanced phones. This is a mid-range device.
“As such, even though it offers reasonable performance, it will never be a powerhouse, and when it comes to pure performance.”
Fairphone is not the only phone manufacturer that focuses on durability. The family and the German company Shiftphones, founded in 2014, have also developed a durable modular smartphone.
Sales have doubled every year for the past six years, but it is also a small player that has sold 70,000 units.
Samuel Waldeck, founder and CEO of Shiftphones, believes a collaboration would improve the two companies’ ability to influence larger competitors.
“I think it would be a very important signal to work together, also for the rest of the market,” he says.
“The whole sector is working against you … if you join forces, you would have more units for yourself, which would make a big difference.”