While you’re waiting for your Fairphone, here are some tips for smartphone sustainability

You may have read about Fairphone, a Dutch startup that is trying to build – as the name implies – as fair a phone as possible. That means building transparent relationships all the way down the supply chain, in order to source conflict-free minerals (tin, tantalum, cobalt, gold) and ensure the handsets are built under acceptable working conditions. The company will also donate €3 ($3.94) from each sale to the establishment of safe e-waste recycling schemes.

Fairphone announced yesterday that it had taken in 5,000 pre-orders, meaning it can now start developing a finalized product. The company is still just over a week ahead of the target date it had set for the goal, so you can still pre-order if you want to be among the first buyers (you’d get a special edition Fairphone, too).

This is a really important scheme. The phones only cost €325 ($426.50) including tax and, if they materialize as promised, they will serve as proof that it is possible to make an affordable modern smartphone in a much more ethical way than is currently the norm. We’re talking a quad-core 1.2 GHz processor, Android(s goog) 4.2, 960 x 540-pixel resolution screen, removable 2,000 mAh battery, 16 GB of storage and 1 GB of RAM, 8 MP rear-facing camera, 1.3 MP selfie-shooter, and so on.

However, it’s important to remember that – even without the Fairphone – there are steps you can take now to make your smartphone use as sustainable and ethical as possible. These pretty much all come down to this precept: hold off replacing your handset for as long as possible.

Here are a few suggestions for those of you who need to buy a handset now:

  • Go quad-core: This is almost a no-brainer these days anyway, but I suspect smartphone evolution is entering a plateau phase on the processor front, much as PCs did a few years back. Four cores will suffice for pretty much all applications for at least the near-to-mid-term – in fact, two cores usually do the job; the addition of more cores is more a power-management play than a boost in horsepower.
  • Shun the omnibody: Fully-sealed handsets may allow for thinner designs and sleeker looks, but if you can’t replace the battery you are likely to find yourself ditching the phone once it wears down. Not only that – it also makes it harder to recycle the device afterwards (the same goes for laptops, by the way).
  • Minimize fragility: I’m not talking about screens here, obviously, but – from my experience – glass backings for smartphones are a bad thing. Phones get dropped, they get flexed too far, and even Gorilla Glass can get cracked after a while. The less likely you are to break your phone, the less likely you are to require a replacement. Go for casing that will stand up to day-to-day use.

Of course, none of these tips solve the problems of harsh manufacturing conditions and unethically-sourced raw materials – for that, you’ll need to wait for Fairphone and/or the wider changes in the industry that it will hopefully stimulate. But, while you’re waiting, there’s no reason not to favor the most long-lasting alternatives we have today. And remember: only buy that Fairphone if you really need a new handset.

PS – I can’t resist leaving you with this video of the Fairphone team demonstrating their delight at hitting their pre-order target:

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/67676663 w=500&h=281]