Hate Planned Obsolescence? Consider the Fairphone

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Some things wear out faster than others. Part of that has to do with materials (some are much more durable than others),  and sometimes part of that has to do with use. Consider that your favorite pair of jeans that’s worn every single day won’t last as the pair stashed at the back of the closet and worn once a year. Part of that also has to do with how something is designed, as in, some products were just made to break down.

For the latter, we’re talking about planned obsolescence, the design strategy that manufacturers use to ensure that within a certain period of time the object that you have purchased will be out-of-date, or worse yet, completely unusable. You’ll be forced to get a new one.

Of course, there are arguments to be made for planned obsolescence. As marketing guru Philip Kotler has said, “Much so-called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society—forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.” Improved goods is one thing, but when they come at the cost of both our environment and our society, we should certainly be questioning this manufacturing strategy.

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One company is doing exactly that.

Fairphone, created by Bas van Abel and based in Amsterdam, is developing a phone that is designed with ethics in mind. As the name indicates, much of the impetus for the smartphone comes from wanting to design a phone that avoided conflict minerals and was made with fair working practices. Fairphone has built the phone so that they can map their supply chain, providing traceability and transparency to the consumer. But the phone is also built to last longer, designed so that you are able to repair it, as well as made with more durable, longer-lasting, materials. “Fairphone wants to encourage users to have a deeper relationship with their phones and take more responsibility for keeping them in working condition,” the company stated in a press release.

As van Abel told Co.Exist, “We made a phone that people can open, so they can change parts themselves. If they can take care of it, they are probably going to use it longer and that means they’re probably going to use it longer.”

Our modern culture has become synonymous with throwaway culture; when something doesn’t work, things are cheap enough that it’s often less expensive for us to toss whatever doesn’t work and buy a new one. Of course, the real costs of getting rid of something and buying something new to replace it are externalized. The price it costs us to replace an object is often far under the real environmental and social cost of producing a new one.

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Consider this: in 2010, Americans threw away around 310 million computers, monitors, TVs, and mobile phones. That makes for hundreds of thousands of phones thrown away on a daily basis. When it came to smartphones, only about 11% of those that were disposed of were recycled, leading to a significant amount of e-waste. Certainly there is a part of that number comes from a desire to just have something new, but another part of it comes from being forced to throw something away because it’s just not possible to fix.

In its second iteration, the Fairphone is said to be “designed to change the way products are made.” This isn’t just a new phone design; this is a design challenge to other industries, asking them to step it up and think smarter about design. Besides just design, Fairphone is rethinking the entire economic model that most businesses base their practices.

“We’re exploring alternatives to the linear economic model using the principles of a ‘circular economy.’ We’re researching new business models for service and ownership, including ways to extend the life of the Fairphone, as well as reusing and recycling components and materials from phones that have reached their end-of-life,” the company said in a press release.

Imagine if all industries were making products that were “future resilient” instead being designed with an expiration date? That is what makes companies like Fairphone exciting. They are addressing a very real issue of wasteful industries, and proving that smart design can in fact make a difference. And we’re getting close to a time when that kind of design isn’t just smart, it’s our only option.

All images from Fairphone