Producing the fairphone – VPRO documentary – 2016

Producing the fairphone – VPRO documentary – 2016

You run into all the shit
that every company runs into… …in that economic chain. And everyone
thinks only of the short term and money. No better place to feel like a consumer
than here. A Ferrari phone. Five years ago I saw the iPhone 9
here. For five simcards. It gave off a nice light too.
Good LEDs. For me the essence of making a phone
was to get into the systems. Designing is about
getting into the dark matter… …and making changes there. The dark matter is
all the complex systems. Phones have a lot of dark matter.
It’s just a starting point. But if you want to change
the dark matter: The economy, the systems that make
phones into what they are… …you must to get into the system. You can make a phone
on your own in your backyard… …and say ‘look, I did it.’
It’ll take 200 or 300 years. We’ll have to get a little older first. But then it’s an art object, a priceless
symbolic thing in a museum. I want to challenge
the economic system. So I’ll have to start a business
with a commercial interest… …and get into that economy. So we’re not going to
make a phone ourselves. We’ll start a company that makes
phones in a different way. So the solution must be found
in the economy. Why phones? Why not peanut butter
or something simple? Phones to me are the ultimate paradox. A recent study done by Vodafone
says that one in three people… …will answer the phone
even during sex. That tells you something about
our relationship with phones. It’s such a personal thing. We’re
constantly in touch with everyone. It’s about being connected,
to the whole world. But we don’t know much about our
phones. It’s a very complex object. Plus, it’s one of the most competitive
industries in our economy. The biggest companies in the world
are in that market. It’s the perfect object to unravel
in order to understand the world. In the end it’s my story that counts:
I’m going to produce a phone. People will think I’m nuts.
But they’ll be interested. If you make fair chairs,
they’ll think you’re a hippie. Everywhere in Shenzhen you see
these boxes coming out of buildings. They’re bought and sold, they go
to factories that make products. The nice thing here is that you
actually see and feel this chain. Components, semi manufactures,
everything is traded here. We’ve stopped wondering where things
come from and who made them. Milton Friedman was an economist
and economic philosopher. He wrote a fantastic essay: I, Pencil. It describes the global economy and
markets through the eyes of a pencil. What a wonderful way
to explain our market system. But it also shows
we’re completely alienated… …from what happens behind the scenes. It’s great how we can make all these
things without understanding them. That’s what industrialisation has done.
Division of labour, market mechanism. People everywhere make, sell
and trade things without knowing… …what the final product will be.
Something comes out of it: A phone, a lamp, whatever.
A pencil. And we all worked on that together. But what I find a bit distressing
about this video… …is that it refers to the invisible
hand, the price mechanism. The economy itself ensures
that things are produced. It’s said to link all the nations
on earth, all people. But that human link is gone now. The invisible hand also obscures
the way humans are linked… …by the economic system. That’s the crux for building
new insights and relationships… …and restructuring
the economic system. The market system as such is fine.
We can do a lot with it. But the driving forces behind it
need to change. That can only be done if everyone
in the chain cooperates: From consumers to investors. They expect certain things
from businesses. But they should realise there are
other ways to organise the system. They’re making a movie. They take it apart right here.
No problem. The components are out
in the blink of an eye. That many?
– Yes, it’s unusual. Move it up.
– I’d better not. Is it a Sony?
– No. Then what?
– I can’t see. Normally it takes two minutes
to disassemble a phone. With this one we’re on five or six. Maybe it’s because we’ve never
seen one like this before. They even have long nails
to unscrew those tiny parts. I love how they still repair them.
Westerners don’t do that anymore. They replace a whole block,
or maybe a screen. But if one resistor is broken,
they throw the whole phone out. But this guy here has components
from other phones… …so they have this recycling industry
with usable components. In our economic system
that’s too expensive. Legislation and certification
make re-use way too complicated. Here they do it, but repair at this
level in the West is impossible. I’m getting nervous now.
Will it ever work again? He’s dissembled it down to the bone. It’s a whole different outlook
on products… …and how to keep them alive. I’m sure their phones
last longer than ours… …if repair at this level is possible. Understanding the smartphone chain
starts with the components: The materials, what’s it made of,
by whom, and where. It’s absurd when you realise that
everything we humans ever make… …all industrial products,
start out as a rock. A mineral. And that we can make products
out of them like phones, buildings… …bridges, you name it. When you go back to the mines,
you see… …that rocks are cut out by hand,
30 metres under the ground. That’s the start of complex products
like phones. One phone contains over 40 minerals.
Some come from East Congo. Millions of people were killed there… …in conflicts over mining the minerals
for our phones. Coltan, copper, gold. And what happens
in those mines is horrendous. Hello.
– Hello sir, how are you? Are you coming all the way down here
with a camera? Is it illegal for underage people
to work in the mines? Yes.
– This country is dying anyway. Is this cassiterite?
– Yes. The coltan, the cassiterite, everything,
they’re taken from Bisie. I know the area. I’ve been there. I think we all know the stories. They are on display there
in the most graphic way. The kind of warfare they have there… …comes with rape and the total
destruction of entire villages. And lots of child soldiers,
drug addicts. The Mai-Mai in particular
are completely crazed. They’re brainwashed. Could you say that you as a designer
were so shocked… …that you thought:
I can’t do this, I have to stop? This is so big, I don’t want to
get my fingers burned? No. On the contrary. It was… We know there’s a lot of shit
going on in Africa. So was I shocked? No. I knew this. I knew thousands are killed there. So it’s linked to my phone, but
that’s not shocking. We knew that. But we don’t realise it or feel it.
It doesn’t hurt us. Because the human link is gone. I want to restore them via this object.
The object goes through the chain. As a person you can’t.
But the phone starts at ground level. So that’s the basis. So no, not shocked. I’m sad, it’s
horrible. But we already knew this. Our numbers are small but symbolic.
We can set a trend here. We can make the story known. Do you have the rock?
– Yes, in the back. This rock. This is a rock
I took from the mine in Congo. It’s convinced lots of people
of my story. This makes it tangible. This black line here is cobalt.
It’s used for batteries. This rock was the only tangible
thing we had in our pursuit. We had no clients yet. People were keen to see
what we idiots were doing. We’d employed a few others by then
and started the business. People wondered if we would
really produce a phone. I went to KPN and I threw this rock
on the board room table. In some crazy way I’d gotten
an appointment with the board. So I was talking to the very top
of KPN and I said: I’m turning this into a fair phone. I signed a contract
for 1000 non-existing phones. Our business was a few days old.
We’d never made a phone before. And the cost was unknown. So I had a deal, and luckily
that attracted more people. They were like: If KPN buys them,
I want them too. Then we had crowdfunding
to get the money. After one week, 5,000 people
had bought a fairphone. After 3 weeks it was 10,000
and we had 3.5 million in the bank. I panicked. I knew nothing
about making phones. We were not prepared
for this economic insanity. But one of the things I learned
from crowdfunding… …and from starting a business:
it’s all about the story. Of course we checked
if we could do it in Europe. Because China is a really
complicated country. We wanted to solve the mineral issue. We didn’t need labour issues
and human rights issues as well. But the thing is:
all the suppliers in that chain… …sometimes up to six layers deep
of component manufacturers… …are in China. So even if we assembled in Europe,
everything would still come from China. And we wouldn’t have a clue
about the workers. So you were stuck with China?
– Well, stuck… We had to work with China,
but I want to put that in perspective: Those guys really know
what they’re doing. Great party here with all those lights. What a mess. Look. There’s one asleep down there. They are taught this in school,
to have afternoon naps. If you walk around a factory
in the afternoon… …the whole line of workers
will have an obligatory nap. Offices. Everywhere.
In China they all have power naps. All these stands belong to factories. The factories produce
hundreds of thousands of items. Factories, you say?
They look like shops. These are the factories’ salesmen. This area is entirely focused
on electronics. So all the factories in the country… …put a salesman here permanently.
It’s like a trade fair. And the whole world
comes here to shop. It’s not just aimed at the Chinese. Loads of smartwatches. No better place to feel like a consumer
than here. A profusion of stuff. And this isn’t the only place like this
in town. There are 30 or 40. All full of this type of stand. You have to assume the agents
are all bastards, in principle. They really are…
I’m sure there’s a few good ones. The standard agent out here who
does business for Western companies… …links them to factories here.
That’s his job. But they grab their margin
at every turn. They’re traders, in fact. They’ll do whatever they can
to get money out of it. We told ours from the start:
We don’t want that. Easily said, but you know
they won’t obey. We said in the contract:
We’ll pay you well for your work… …so you won’t have to waste time
on backhanded deals for yourself. But he did that anyway, of course. That was a business lesson
I had to learn. It’s in their blood. I felt bad for my clients too. I wanted to do an honest deal,
but then this type crossed my path. That’s how it works.
Then I wanted to get rid of him. But if I did, I’d have no contacts
in China and he’d have free play. It was a problem for our mission. I’d had a few emails from Mulan by then. She said: I must work for you guys. I studied sociology,
I have an MA in sustainability. She’s from Taiwan,
so she speaks the language. She loved what we do.
It was her calling, she said. So I called her and said:
We have a problem. We’re in China and we need
someone here permanently… …who can supervise production,
sustainability and work conditions. Do you want to do it?
She said: Great. She cooked some meals for her
husband, stuck them in the freezer… …and said: ‘Honey, I’m going to China.’
She stayed for two years. Fair factories don’t exist. Or everyone
would do their production there. If you ask people:
What is fair, in your opinion? You’d get different replies in Congo
or China or the Netherlands. Even among different individuals. But if you ask: What is unfair?
you’ll get lots of similar answers. That’s a kind of universal value,
what is unfair. One important thing in manufacturing
is that everything looks the same. Cosmetically. You want
a smooth battery, for example. That cosmetic finish is all handwork. To make sure everything
looks fresh for the consumers. Most coatings are purely cosmetic,
to make it look better. Or so it won’t stain. For touchscreens
obviously that’s necessary. But who cares if the casing
gets a little smudgy? So you use no coating,
you have less waste material… …and fewer health hazards. Lots of Chinese factories can’t
do coating in a safe, healthy way. It’s a decision you can make
as a designer. So it gets a bit smudgier.
But the process is cleaner. What strikes you
when you walk into a factory? I always want to know
if the workers are relaxed. If they all look like,
oh shit, what’s happening… It’s different when you come in
and they giggle… …and they look to see who the tall
people are. That’s just curiosity. Another important thing
is the cafeteria. Does everyone sit together? Do
workers and management mingle? Do they chat together?
I want to feel the atmosphere. There are overtime issues.
People work too much. There are problems with temps.
But the biggest problem in China is: It’s one of the most capitalist
countries I know… …but there’s little or no protection
of the work force. There are no unions. The law is very clear:
The only union is the state union. So there’s no freedom. You can’t go talk to your manager
about unfairness. You can’t go on strike. This is the Foxconn recruitment office. Foxconn has a bad reputation
after a number of incidents. People say it symbolises
what’s wrong with China. The question is, what did they do after
all those bad things were in the news? The suicides of factory workers who
said the pressure was killing them. The mental pressure mainly. Foxconn is known
for its military system. Would you talk to us?
– I don’t speak English. Chinese is fine.
– OK, what do you want me to say? How do you think it will be? I haven’t been inside yet.
I’m not sure what to expect. Whatever happens,
you just keep a positive attitude. And then it will be fine, right? This young man arrived yesterday
and he got the job. He lives hundreds of miles away. But he’s starting tomorrow.
I think he’s pretty happy. They come here because they have
no choice. They need the money. It’s that simple. Everything changes when you are the
company and you make the product. You run into all the shit
that every company runs into… …in that economic chain. And everyone
thinks only of the short term and money. It’s the strangest thing. I started out with such passion
and so much intensity… …to make this product.
And now I’m losing my way. I want to succeed.
I must make it succeed. But I’m building something
I can’t control anymore. Before you know it, it’s grown
into something you didn’t want. I’m hardly focused on the mission
anymore, on why we do this. I’m trying to control
a growing enterprise. Suddenly I have 100,000 clients
and a 10 or 20 million turnover. I’m responsible for the staff
and for the product. I’m only focused on the money
and on surviving. So I’m starting to wonder:
What did I get myself into? When did you realise you’d gone
from designer to entrepreneur? Well… When I found myself
at the Health Authority’s crisis centre. That’s when I realised. Only then?
– Only then. Yes, I have…
It was such a… You begin, and it’s a rocket,
and it was launched. And you give it everything you have. And you keep doing that. Of course I sometimes felt like,
wait a minute. I’m doing things I’ve never
done before, all day long. Can I really do this?
I was insecure sometimes. But up to that moment I had never
thought: I’m afraid to do this. I had enough hope and strength… Or arrogance if you like. Up to that
point I had been able to do anything. I may have felt insecure sometimes,
but I could do it. We were doing the impossible. But one day I just keeled over. And then I realised that
for a long time I’d been doing… …something I didn’t want
and wasn’t able to. Mulan was frustrated by the distance. Physically, but also because
she didn’t know what was happening. Because the work was growing?
– Yes. We’re in a phase… …where we realise:
Wait, money is key here. We need to survive. Even sustainable businesses
must make money. One of the tough things
you have to solve is… …when you have no money
to pay the wages of your own staff… …financing a social programme
in China loses its priority. Someone has to take the first step. Attempt the impossible
and be called a nutter. Which is good,
because most people like nutters. Joining them is a lot harder though. Did fair trade chocolate become
the biggest business ever? No. They didn’t conquer the market.
But they set something in motion. What we did won’t affect
this particular chain very much. But it tells the big companies:
Look guys, this is possible. You can get your minerals
from war-free zones in Africa. You can organise programmes in China.
You can recycle phones. When you just do it,
defying all economic principles… …and show that your business
won’t go under… …it’s proof that the sustainable
business model works. And that customers actually want that.


21 thoughts on “Producing the fairphone – VPRO documentary – 2016”

  • Higher potential for change lies in gathering, processing, categorizing and properly disseminating information about various countries/companies/locations work conditions and their ties to most well known brands.
    Or in short: shedding a light instead of swimming against the current hoping that you'll outswim sharks.

  • Could you change the position of the subtitles? Most of the time they are placed in the upper middle of the screen so that the faces are covered. I think it would be better to position them in the lower middle. I tried german and english subtitles. Thanks for uploading the documentary 🙂

    I also tried to move the subtitles to a different position but it didn't work. Maybe it works for other people…

  • Putu Windu Tenaya says:

    I hope that fairphone modular concept can spread arround the world especially for developing country, maybe local smartphone brand can use this similar like android one. ?

  • I always like/love your documentaries, but this one is exceptionally remarkable, well structured, well-paced and moving. I'm sure it helps that Bas is someone easy to relate to/sympathize with, but it's really all together.
    Two questions relating to the Congolese guy talking at the mines:
    1 – Shouldn't his name be also included when being interviewed?
    2- Could someone tell me what his last sentence is? "You can't imagine what …".
    This part of the doc is really intense, and it's greatly wrapped just afterwards by Bas talking about the lack of true human links in trade, related to Friedman's essay.
    Dank je Vpro, don't change! 🙂

  • The Sun State says:

    is there any way to obtain english subtitles for your doccies?? llj maxwell says they cover the faces but all i have is an empty screen and ears that struggle to understand dutch

  • Christopher Franz says:

    Fantastic documentary. I'm glad I stumbled across your channel thanks to the recent Horizon: Zero Dawn doc. I've had an eye on fairphone for quite some time, so this look behind the scenes was very intruiging. Thanks & keep up the good work!

  • Master Troll says:

    I would buy this – even though it is underpowered and overprice. But I can't. Because the BIG problem with this phone, and something that was unfortunately overlooked, is the fact that it came with a version of Android and was never updated after that. What good is a phone with a modular and easily repairable hardware with an OS stuck in the past? 🙁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *