Fair Materials 101 – Understanding the Fair Sourcing game


Maybe I’ve spent too much time playing board games in lockdown, but I’m starting to see similarities between my favorite games and my daily work at Fairphone. I’m focused on creating positive impact throughout our smartphones’ supply chain. But just like Snakes and Ladders or Ganzenbord, taking a step forward can sometimes lead backwards! Other times, it’s just like Monopoly: you’re progressing around the board and feel like you’re doing so well, when suddenly you land on your “friend’s” Park Place with four hotels and your whole game changes.

After introducing you to all you need to know about Fair materials, it’s about time we explain the game. Fair material sourcing isn’t just a one-off procurement-policy decision; like The Game of Life it’s an entire journey, an iterative (and often incremental) process where one step forward can end up leading two steps back. Creating a fair material chain can sometimes feel more like sliding along an icy path than a simple summer stroll. But step by step, we have moved forwards, deepening our understanding of our phones’ supply chain and developing fairer sources as we go. With our goal to sustainably source 14 focus materials; this is how we will go about tackling this. Inspired by this series and want to nerd out more? Read our material roadmap on how we selected these 14 materials.

Our experience has taught us that in every journey towards a responsible supply, there are certain steps worth following:


1. Research

Once upon a time, when you opened a new board game, the only way to learn how to play were the printed instructions. These days, you can find entire YouTube channels dedicated to the finer points of rules and strategy, and message boards where you can chat to people with deep, specific knowledge. You just need to know where to look, and what to look for.

The first step in any endeavor for fair supply chains is deep research. This is gathered by our internal experts, but also via external parties who can provide incredibly detailed information and insights. By looking from many angles, we can better understand the social and environmental issues present in the supply chain, along with the opportunities to drive positive impact. This is the step we’ve been taking recently, identifying and assessing which materials to focus on from a very long list.

Having gained a general understanding, research can become more specific, revealing the most promising impact possibilities or urgent issues requiring interventions. This could include assessing challenges for a specific material in the supply chain, in certain regions, or for particular supply chain partners. Like this one we did to reduce the social and environmental damage of rare earth mining, or to improve tin miners wages in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

2. Supply chain mapping

Every component in a smartphone has its own supply chain and stakeholders. If you ever had a friend who was truly obsessive about designing maps for Dungeons and Dragons, with trapdoors and moving stairways, secret hallways and rooms that you couldn’t unlock, you have some idea of what a supply chain map can look like.

Wanting to drive positive impact through our sourcing strategy, we map our supply chain to identify whom to engage. We conduct this step with our final assembly partner, our sub-suppliers, and our component suppliers.

This is a complex and difficult process. We depend on the supplier to disclose who they source from – which not everyone wants to do. We have no means to force such disclosures – we’re 7th level wizards, but sometimes the information we need is behind an Arcane Lock spell, or a supplier fears opening the door will attract a dangerous wolf pack of competitors.

Sometimes, this step is where one possible route towards fair sourcing ends, and a path we’ve been following for ages turns out to be a closed maze. Supply chain mapping can take considerable time, and requires trust from all parties involved.

3. Supplier and partner engagement

With research and supply chain mapping completed, we now know who to engage with to establish a fair material supply chain. Like Beth Harmon in “Queen’s Gambit” sitting down for the first time to play a game of chess with Mr. Shaibel, the rules aren’t clear, nobody knows quite what to expect, and our game could lead to a quick disaster or a lifelong friendship.

Our favorite players in this game are the strategic suppliers who are willing to engage and cooperate to improve the supply chain. At this stage, in addition to suppliers, we also engage stakeholders who will be key to the success of the next steps of our journey, along with Non-Governmental Organizations and local, on-the-ground partners who all bring unique perspectives and additional opportunities for change.

4. Program design

Once the key partners engaged in the previous steps are on board, we work together to co-develop a continuous improvement program. This part is more like the board game “Pandemic” — one that nobody is having fun playing these days — in that the players cooperate rather than compete. We’re both after the same outcome. An example would be the <link> Fair Cobalt Alliance.

Keeping our fair sourcing principles in mind, we also examine cost-sharing arrangements and, if applicable, fundraising potentials for larger programs with more stakeholders.

5. Program implementation

Having drafted the improvement program and ensuring the necessary investment, this is the step where the program takes off, with each partner fulfilling their specified role in the program to ensure its success. At this point, we’re building a Jenga tower, and everybody has to pay strict attention and make the right moves or the whole thing collapses.

6. Continuous monitoring of impact

Improving complex social and environmental situations doesn’t happen overnight. It is vital to maintain collaborative partnerships and continuous monitoring to achieve the defined impact goals. This is why Fairphone places such importance on monitoring, evaluating and transparently reporting on program impacts. You can’t walk away from the game — there are unexpected moves and situations that flip, making the whole effort sometimes feel like playing a game of Go on a roller coaster.

But having thought about all the games our Fairphone Fair Material Board Game might look like, it’s clear none are a perfect match. That’s probably because the game we’re playing here is one we’re inventing. It doesn’t really look like any of my old favorites. And unlike most games, this is one where the objective is for ALL the players to win. So off we go, continuing on the journey to create fair material supply chains for an even larger number of materials. Game on!

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