Sunday, December 22, 2013

Conflict-free, Fair Trade, and 3D Printed: How Consumer Electronics can be made Ethical and Ecofriendly

As a writer, I'm acutely aware that my chosen profession is not exactly eco-friendly. Many trees have died for my journals and publications--although a handful of books are now being printed on recycled plastic, making them both waterproof and a potential solution to overcrowded landfills--and it seems like even when I move away from hard copies poor planet earth can't win. To say nothing of the conflict minerals that go into phones, computers, and other electronics.

So I was really excited to do the research for this week's Fair Trade Friday post at the Amani DC blog. The subject: ethical consumer electronics. There have been two interesting new developments: first, the Fairphone in Europe comes as close as possible to a fully ethical smartphone, built with conflict-free materials mined and constructed by workers earning living wages and designed to be long-lasting to minimize waste from disposing of old electronics.
Gizmag takes a first look at Fairphone (Photo: Gizmag)

Another way to keep more phones out of landfills comes from Motorola's Ara phone--constructed of puzzle-piece like "Phonebloks," some of which can be created through 3D printing, the Ara is designed for extreme user customization but also virtually eliminates the need to ever buy a new phone. Instead, you can upgrade or replace each Phoneblok as needed or desired--your cracked screen, old battery, or subpar camera can be switched out for a better blok without having to dispose of the entire phone. Plus, the Ara looks pretty awesome.



The Fairphone seems pretty popular in Europe (25,000 phones sold so far--not a lot in the scheme of things, but a nice amount given it's barely been released yet), but the Ara is still in the tinkering stage and it's unclear if it'll really catch on. If it does, though, the potential impact could be amazing, especially if these innovations are scaled up to other electronics besides phones. Laptopbloks, anyone?