Getting to know Fairphone


Showing copper
Showing Copper after cleaning

For the past few months I have been watching online and listening to conversations offline about the initiative by a group of people here in Amsterdam which looks at how mobile phones are made and how their production effects people and the environment around the world.  It is one of those difficult to address issues, because we are talking about a device that is so essential and so present in everyone’s life in almost every corner of the planet. And while we can be critical, perhaps, of the companies that produce them, we still need the device so sometimes the questions aren’t asked and the practices aren’t closely scrutinized.


Until now.

The concerned group of people involved in Fairphone have decided to build the world’s first ethically produced phone, as they explain it:

Our aim of fairness is simple: to not harm man or nature in creating our phone. Not in transporting or producing it. And not in acquiring the raw materials for it.

As their first step in researching and beginning on the production process of the phone, they recently went to Congo (DRC) to meet with artisanal miners and learn about their working conditions, as well as what they would want in terms of fair treatment and payment as the source of the raw materials that eventually make the devices function.  In the process they also purchased raw cobalt and brought it back to the Netherlands to be used in their first prototype phones.  Thus completing the very basic but very little known step one of building our mobile phones, the mining of raw materials.

After having learned all about their initial efforts to both build a phone and shed light on an issue with global impact, I decided to get involved as a journalist and a concerned citizen/phone user. My aim is to follow this process and pass on information to the public, to stimulate conversations that could help on the road to more ethical production of the devices we love and use so much.

More information and reporting to come. This was only my own journalistic step 1 towards getting to know fairphone and an industry that could use a good kick in the pants.

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Coal from Kemerovo

Many of you out there are hoping I’ll write more about Tomsk, and in time, I surely will. But one aspect of this trip that certainly overwhelms and makes it impossible to write much is the fact that I am nonstop on my way somewhere.  A factor that I’m extremely thankful to great friends for keeping it that way.  I suppose I’ll have plenty of time for writing and navel gazing once I get on the Trans-Siberian in the coming week.

I left Tomsk reluctantly as the more days I was there, the more interesting things kept happening. Yet it is good to stick with the plan and not overstay one’s welcome, so I hit the road via relatively modern bus en route to Kemerovo (pop. 485,000). Amazingly Kemerovo was no where on my list of places to go on this trip, but thanks to the magic of the internets, I received a warm invite from a Kemerovienne who heard I was in the region, had lived in the United States for a time, and suggested I come see this bustling city.  And so like any good traveling journalist and curious mind, I said yes.

Kemerovo isn’t only an industrial town, but you wouldn’t know it as the bus crosses the bridge over the river Tom and directly in front of you three huge smokestacks from the coal powerplant pump out some dark smoke.  Looking further up the river the power plant has plenty of friends, with different kinds of factories and smokestacks dotting the landscape as far as the eye can say.  The industrial photographer in me says “this is heaven”, if heaven were a cold, grey, collection of old industrial buildings.

Coincidentally, with all the news over the past few weeks about the mining disaster in the US, Kemerovo is a coal mining city. When I heard this I asked if we could visit any type of mining shrine or museum, and to my great pleasure my wonderful hostess said “Of course!” – and off we went.

It is an odd reality in an era of so much talk about the need for energy alternatives and green technology, and all the possibilities that exist, coming to Kemerovo is a reminder that while green is good and green is needed, coal is still king for a huge part of the world.  As the bus pulls past the coal plant, my eyes are fixed on the sagging tunnels and the never ending system of pipes. A giant poster on the side of the building features an image of a smiling toddler, although its in Russian, I know what the poster says – “making a clean world for your healthy children!”

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Threatening NYC Water

Some of you may recall a great guest I had on the podcast last year, Al Appleton, the man who saved the NYC water system.

I thought of Al today as I read about how NY state has loosened restrictions on drilling for gas in the NYC watershed are. Using a method called horizontal drilling under the Catskill Mountains, there are proposals to drill for gas. This despite the risk that drilling would bring of spilling toxic chemicals into New York City’s drinking supply. Interfering with the water system could also force the need for building a water treatment plant which would cost an astronomical amount. This despite the fact that over a decade ago, concerned citizens and watershed experts like Al Appleton eliminated the need for building such plants by Read more

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Researching Gold Crimes

For the past week I’ve been researching the activities of gold mining companies around the world. I’ve narrowed my focus to two places, Chilé and Romania. In both places it is one mining company above all, that is focused on extracting gold despite whatever risks to the environment or communities that may involve.

In the coming weeks I intend to have a few podcasts on both places and on this topic. Eventually I may hitchhike my way over to Romania in the coming months and see things with my own eyes, make some video entries about it.

But at this point I wanted to start the conversation about the practices of mining companies, and specifically the gold mines. Barrick Gold is a Canadian company, which of course, tarnishes my naive hopes that all things Canadian are considerate and kind. This company is one of the largest mining operations in the world; in Chilé they are set to mine under glaciers, insisting that the exact spot where they are mining, no glaciers will be harmed even though the area has several. As if the world was so brimming with glaciers that it would be no big deal to go and destroy one in order to extract gold. In Romania they’ve been trying to buy out an entire community and create Europe’s largest open pit gold mine. Unfortunately for them, many of the people living there do not want to sell their land and let it be cut open. As you would expect, some are very ready to sell and to hell with whatever happens to their former home. While surrounding communities are concerned about the amount of pollution they will suffer because of that type of mining going on near them.

Protest in Chilé

Of course there is much more to all these stories, and I’ll get to it. But right now, what bothers me most of all is that so much of this destruction is done for getting…. gold. Gold that does what for people exactly? Does it even power anything or help build something useful for human life? A friend of mine called it “free money”. Of course it costs money to actually mine it, but still… all this destruction and conflict because this mineral is so valuable in some bullshit in-humane place called “the market”.

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