Fairtronics: Using Data to Break Down the Social Risks of Consumer Electronics

How ethical are your consumer products? New data-driven approaches are hoping to provide new insight into where and how our electric gadgets are produced.

Autor*in Mark Newton, 01.03.22

Translation Sarah-Indra Jungblut:

Christmas has come and gone, and no doubt households across the globe are awash with new electronics of all shapes, sizes – and social risk. In our increasingly globalised world, it’s a reality that products, such as smartphones, can have their manufacturing origins traced back to numerous nations, many of which may host vastly different standards of worker welfare and treatment.

But with each electronic device consisting of many different components made of many different materials from many different nations, how can both consumers and manufacturers gain oversight of the potential social and environmental harm of their products?

A German endeavour, Fairtronics, is now seeking to provide just this level of oversight. Funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research and the Prototype Fund, Fairtronics has created an online portal in which manufacturers – both big and small – can test the risk of their products and highlight potential areas of concern. The team previously worked on the FairLötet e.V. project, the experience of which has been used to inform the development of Fairtronics.

The platform has brought together significant amounts of data and research which can be quickly and easily translated for laymen into actionable risk assessments. Users can create reports on the website in which they lay out the various components, such as resistors, circuit boards and cables, that make up their products. Fairtronics then assesses the likelihood of certain components being produced in nations with poor track records of worker and human rights. It does this by measuring the overall weight of a component, how much of that component consists of certain metals, and then which countries produce these metals. The user is then provided a risk assessment which highlights potential problem hotspots and gives each component a low, medium or high risk assessment.

The concept is designed not so much to give specific information about the origins of specific pieces of technology but provide an overall perspective that can highlight potential issue areas. Now armed with the information from Fairtronics, manufacturers can further investigate their supply chains and make adjustments to decrease the risk of using unethical labour or materials mined in conflict zones. In particular, Fairtronics is largely aimed towards smaller manufacturers or startups who wish to improve their sustainability or social responsibility.

Currently, Fairtronics are following the Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) guidelines and methodological sheets for identifying potential social impact categories. They are largely concentrating on the workers as stakeholder groups, and provide assessments covering the following range of issues: freedom of association and collective bargaining, child labor, fair salary, hours of work, forced labour, equal opportunities and discrimination, health and safety and social benefit and social security. Indicators for each category are developed based on information provided by organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and Unicef.

Overall, Fairtronics is still in a relatively early prototype stage. It accepts its current version is limited largely to raw metals, such as copper, iron and silver, and a degree of imprecision is inevitable with its current data sets. For example, users may not be able to find their exact components listed on the platform and may need to select the next closest. However, as its data sets expand, Fairtronics hopes to make improvements in these areas. The social risk of electronics is also not merely limited to their raw materials, but abuses can also occur at the assembly and disposal stages, as well as others. In the future, the platform hopes to also cover these areas of manufacturing, as well as expand the criteria upon which products are judged.

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