Reading about the topic of sustainability in tech is often as interesting as the idea of recycling itself; nominally, you know it's good for you (and the earth), but you often just want to chuck that can in the garbage and be done with it. Although we've made an effort to talk about environmental issues in the smartphone space, with our annual Earth Day coverage and occasional reviews of devices like the Fairphone 3 and Teracube 2e,
Of course, that's not to say that the companies and products we cover aren't making important strides towards greater sustainability. For example, tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Samsung have all introduced more recycled components into their products and packaging and are even making big efforts to reduce their organization's carbon footprints and energy consumption.
As impressive as these moves are, they're primarily done at the company level and are not systemic. There hasn't really been a top-down, industry-wide, government-driven, or non-profit-focused movement to push tech sustainability issues forward in a meaningful way, at least not in North America. Yet as is often the case when it comes to major societal issues like consumer advocacy, data privacy, and environmental protection, Europe is once again leading the charge. That charge now includes the newly-announced FairTEC initiative.
I'm fairly certain you've never heard of FairTEC, but the ambitious project has the potential to change the relationship between consumers, technology companies, and our environment.
What is FairTEC?
FairTEC is a new initiative organized by a small but influential group of European mobile tech companies to create and foster a more circular, sustainable, honest, and, well, fairer consumer tech experience. The initiative is only a month or so old at this point and consists of just six keystone members, but it has already begun to lay the groundwork for its vision of how it hopes to achieve this sense of "fairness."
FairTEC has published a short yet powerful manifesto which states that no one person, company, or government can accomplish this gargantuan task alone. In fact, the brief document mentions the words collaboration and collectivism and the concept of "working-together" at least seven times in just 171 words.
We believe that organizations have a responsibility to offer solutions and services that can limit our impact as well as support end-users to change their behavior.
It was through this common ideology that we created FairTEC, a collective group of actors committed to digital sobriety. We are working together to offer credible and sustainable alternatives in order to create a paradigm shift.
The main goals of the FairTEC initiative include 1) reducing the environmental and social impacts of smartphone production, 2) choosing and promoting lighter and privacy-friendly operating systems that don't lock users into walled gardens, 3) choosing mobile subscriptions with terms that are fairer to consumers, and 4) choosing an economic model that favors device longevity by renting smartphones rather than the constant upgrade and disposal cycle most of us find ourselves in.
These are noble goals, to be sure, but they are also ones that somehow feel attainable, at least in the long term. But before we talk about if and how FairTEC can scale its ambitions to really make a significant difference, let's quickly take a look at the players currently involved in the project.
Who is FairTEC?
FairTec was started by six companies that each served as pillars for the four main strategies mentioned above. On the hardware side is Fairphone, the Dutch smartphone company that really popularized the idea of sustainable technology in the mobile industry. For sales and distribution, there is Commown, a French cooperative that rents smartphones and other electronics and attempts to extend the lives of its devices through its repair programs.
On the software and services side of things, we have e/OS, a French-based organization that offers an open-source, de-Googled Android experience that promises to respect user privacy and is perfect for tinkerers and novices alike. The Phone Coop (recently rebranded Your Co-op Mobile) is a British utility provider that features low carbon utilities and renewables among its services and offers membership plans that give its customers a say in how the utility is run, as well as a share in its profits. In France, Telecoop fills that same role, while Wetell is the group's German counterpart.
Naturally, the founding companies already had shared business interests and prior working relationships with each other. The Phone Coop was one of the first British carriers to sell Fairphone devices, and Commown has been carrying and servicing Fairphone handsets for some time as well. Fairphone owners have been able to sideload /e/OS for over a year, and now they can even order new phones with the operating system preinstalled instead of Android.
All of the FairTEC members signed on to participate within days of each other.
Lee Thomson, Senior Product Manager at The Phone Coop told me that it didn't take long for the founding members to jump on board and join the project. "Fairphone reached out to existing partners within the territories where the handset is most represented. All of the original group of members signed on within days of each other."
Alexis Noetinger of the e foundation, developers of /e/OS, also elaborated on the inevitable progression of these established relationships. "For us joining an initiative like FairTEC felt very natural as we are all sharing those values and intent. There is a vivid ecosystem around us, and we believe that if we work together, we can be much more effective and visible to benefit end-users."
FairTEC's founding members all shared an outlook and a vision that helped them quickly coalesce as a group and made it possible for them to get straight to work.
While members like Thomson and Noetinger credited Fairphone for leading the charge, Luke James, Sales and Partnership Manager at Fairphone, was more modest and reserved when talking about his company's role in setting up the project. According to James, the idea for FairTEC, like everything the group stands for, was collaborative. "We were all familiar with each other, and I think there was a mutual awareness that each company offered something unique within the sustainable, ethical, and fair electronics spectrum. In January 2021, we had our first call with the four organizations together. We discussed that combined, we could create a really interesting mobile proposition. That was the first step in creating FairTEC. "
James says that while Fairphone has "product launch experience" as well as "experience in collaborative projects cush as the Uganda Gold project and the Fair Cobalt Alliance," above all, FairTEC is "an equal-weighted movement."
FairTEC is an equal collective. The launch was a project managed by Fairphone, but there was an equal weighting to ideas, vision, and workload in order to launch. There is also an agreement that each organization takes turns to chair and organize FairTEC's development per quarter.
When it comes to administering the collaboration, Noetinger told me that each organization would "work closely together to manage the initiative. Each party is bringing their expertise, so it is really beneficial for all in the end. Each member can lead a specific initiative when they have the knowledge or needed skills." Thomson agreed, adding that "each actor will contribute an equal investment."
Each of the founding FairTEC members brings a wealth of experience in their respective areas, but it will likely have to expand its membership and ranks to truly grow the movement. However, any new members should also be a good practical fit, in addition to being an ideological fit.
"We have a strong vision on the impact we want to achieve, and this can only be done by working with like-minded organizations," James told me. James also referenced the last point in the FairTEC manifesto, which states that the collaborative must "remain open to other responsible actors within the industry to join FairTEC."
FairTEC doesn't aim to be an exclusive club and welcomes the idea of growing its ranks with like-minded organizations, but it's not in a hurry to do so.
Thomson elaborated, saying that "FairTEC has already been approached by other organizations interested in joining. The criteria for joining need to be developed, but the important thing is that any new member must be able to expound on their position on fairer and sustainable practices within the industry, their transparency, and credible proof of impact. FairTEC is a democratic organization, so any disagreements as to whether a new member should be welcomed would be settled with a vote. Each participating organization has one vote."
FairTEC currently operates only in Europe for now, as that is where all of its members are based. It is also exclusively focused on the mobile tech/telco industries, but its founders acknowledged there could be room for adjacent interests to join the movement in the future. For example, companies and organizations that focus on consumer rights, customer privacy, and data security like secure browsers, VPNs, secure messaging/email services, password aggregators, etc., might eventually be a good fit for the group as it grows.
But beyond who or what might make FairTEC as an organization stronger, perhaps the more important question is how can FairTEC build the momentum it needs for its movement to succeed?
How can FairTEC make a difference?
It's great that an organization like FairTEC exists, but beyond the business models that its members support, it needs to spread its message to a broader audience in order to have the greatest impact. Thankfully, this is something its constituents know a little something about.
Last year for Earth Day, I had the pleasure of speaking with Fairphone's Ioiana Luncheon about what all goes into making a truly sustainable piece of technology like a smartphone. Among other things, Luncheon told me that in addition to making waves by introducing fairer labor practices, more recycled materials, and developing fairer agreements with resource providers and distributors, above all, Fairphone tries to lead by example. "Our mission is to try to change the industry by showing them it's possible to make fairer electronics."
For FairTEC, this includes giving customers more control over their devices, providing alternative software ecosystems and services that respect their privacy and security and supporting the right to repair movement. Like Fairphone, FairTEC as a collective is also hoping to lead by example to effect change within Europe. According to James, the group is currently "focusing on raising awareness, offering credible mobile propositions, and, where possible, shaping legislation for a fairer electronic movement."
FairTEC aims to collaborate and use its collective voices to raise awareness on the societal and environmental topics behind digital technology.
"In France, for example, we were included in the discussions about "l'indice de réparabilité" with l'ADEME et Hop" said James. "In the UK, we'd like to support Restart Project's Position on the recent Right to Repair regulation."
Thomson added that "Fairphone is already doing excellent work on the supply chain side. Commown works with the French government to influence legislation. One of the collective's mid-term goals is to work together to positively influence the societal or environmental impacts of any national or European legislation relating to digital technology."
According to Thomson, FairTEC has not yet had substantive discussions to broaden its focus beyond Europe. However, he did add that if similar organizations were to form around the world, "it would be a welcome development." All of the other members I reached out to for comment seemed to echo this sentiment, and it's starting to look like there is movement in this area.
Another European telecom initiative led by Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, Telia Company, and Vodaphone recently launched a collaboration to issue new Eco Ratings for smartphones to show consumers how environmentally friendly their devices really are. Over 16 phone manufacturers, including Oppo, Samsung, and Motorola, are participating in the endeavor.
But can an initiative like FairTEC really work beyond Europe with companies, organizations, and governments that haven't traditionally been as concerned about customer rights or sustainability? Neil Shah, Partner and Vice President of Research at Counterpoint Research thinks so. "With ecosystem participation, awareness, [and] standardization of best practices, this initiative could take a bigger turn, especially with the participation of bigger players from component suppliers to device OEMs to mobile operators."
If FairTEC, or something like it, is able to have an outsized influence like Shah described, it would be interesting to see if it might affect other industries outside mobile tech. Perhaps FairTEC's work on its home turf could lead to the kind of policy ripple effects that the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) legislation has stimulated beyond Europe. Shah added that "the sustainability and fair practices could span from the rare earth materials extraction for building the phones to logistics to manufacturing to OS/apps/Cloud Services. Once a standard template or guidelies are created, this could be implemented across multiple industries. FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), jewelry, cryptocurrencies are the ones that need immediate attention."