Meet our sustainability frontrunners series; made with and for sustainability leaders. The aim of the series is two-fold, increase the visibility of pioneers and their approach in (net) zero emission, and inspire peers. How do the leaders of today fulfill their roles? What advice do they give the leaders of the future?
Today’s interviewee is Miquel Ballester Salvà from Fairphone. Miquel has been with the company from the start 8 years ago and is currently Product Design Lead.
Fairphone is on a mission to make the cell phone industry more sustainable, focusing on four pillars: long lasting design, fair materials, good working conditions and reuse & recycling. They reduce emissions mainly through increasing product longevity. Miquel: “Everybody talks about recycling and closing loops, but the effects of extending the lifetime of a product is often overlooked. We also increase the number of phones we recycle, but for us product durability is an essential piece of reducing emissions.
The industry standard for a phone’s lifetime is two-three years. This means all decisions, ranging from what material to use to the time software stays supported, are based on that number. We want to make that five years, to start. Doing this would reduce the carbon emitted per phone by at least 30%, even when corrected for events like extra battery changes and screen repairs.”
Miquel talks about the importance of honest conversations, navigating the supply chain, skipping middle management and extending longevity as KPI. We ask him 4 questions.
What do you advise companies starting with sustainability?
Miquel: “Make sustainability part of your business, not a department. If you want to make a change, the topic needs to be in the core of what you do. I realize that this is not always easy. But if you do not take the time to link it to your business model, sustainability only ends up as a cost on your balance sheet and you spend your time fighting for funding and looking back at everything you could not do because it was too expensive.”
“Go for a step-by-step approach, make compromises.”
“This isn’t easy. Sustainability is a big topic and can be daunting to start with. I advise everyone to do what we did: dream big but start small, make every step count, create a measurable path to success and be ok with a compromise sometimes. We took a step-by-step approach, communicating each time about what we could and could not (yet) do. The one-time right model just does not exist.”
So, what does this look like in practice?
Miquel: “Let’s look at the history of Fairphone as a example. We started as a small project to raise awareness. There was no phone, only workshops. We educated people about materials and why products are not repairable anymore. When we became a company, we started small. We focused on providing proof that producing sustainable mobile phones is possible, like making a repairable device. As we grew bigger, we increased our impact by first using our experience and influence in our network and later through collaborations with other organizations. Today those collaborative projects are an important part of what we do.
Raise awareness, set the example, and scale’
“Anyone that wants to make a difference can use Fairphone’s history as a playbook. We still do too! It is at the core of our ‘theory of change’, in which we split up a change process in three stages.
Stage one is raising awareness. We focus on getting out our message to the rest of the industry. Companies operate in a complex set of supply chains so you want that entire system to tune in on your message if you want change to hold.
Step two is setting the example. Once we have everyone’s attention it is time to show them the solution, such as our living wage program in China. Due to our size our direct impact may be small in those projects, but we show that it is do-able to pay people a living wage and make a profit. We make sure to document well how we did it, publish our learnings and take about every opportunity to talk about the subject. This way we provide change makers elsewhere with all needed knowledge and inspiration to drive change in their organizations.
In the final stage we scale our impact through creating followers. This is where we use the experience from our projects in collaborations with other organizations. A good example is the Fair Cobalt Alliance, that aims to improve working conditions in cobalt mines in Congo. We started this with big companies that can really make an impact like Signify and Tesla, with funding from the Dutch government.“
What do you advise the next generation of sustainability managers?
Miquel: “I hope the next sustainability leaders are just regular business leaders. In the end, aren’t companies created to improve society? They are instruments to make things better. Whatever better means exactly, shouldn’t sustainability at least be part of that?
‘Create companies to improve society and move away from business models based on exploitation.’
Currently a lot of business is built on exploitation. I see practices out there that became accepted where I ask myself how we ever got to this place. Not allowing workers to use the toilet, for instance. What are we doing in this world if these are the companies we create?
Sometimes the process is more subtle, but when you build a business around the lowest prices, is it really a surprise that you end up paying workers under a living wage to turn a profit? Or if you build a company on short product lifecycles: what you make money on is excess production due to people replacing things that are still working.
Let us try to make companies that work without harming the environment or other people. That may require some effort finding the right model, like making money on services if you cannot make it on the hardware. Sometimes that will not be possible, but is it really such a shame to move to another opportunity in those cases, instead of pushing on at the expense of others?”
“If the critical and ambitious mindset and intent are there, results will follow suit.”
What do you advise your younger self?
Miquel: “Learn the difference between lagging and leading indicators! It is so important to choose metrics that guide your decisions. We started with tracking how long people used our phone, which made sense given our mission to increase longevity. What we did not think about was how this would provide direction in year one. Actually, by the time we got insights from this indicator it was late to act. So, we learned to focus on ‘leading’ instead of ‘lagging’ indicators. Instead of waiting for behavior to occur, we track the main drivers behind it. For longevity we now look at trust and service quality, which we found are good indicators for the time a user will keep their phone.
“Focus on leading not lagging indicators.”
What are your daily mantras?
Miquel: “Don’t be afraid to dive into the trenches. What I mean with this is that we need to start talking less about all our wonderful results and more about the hardships faced getting there. Sure, the success story is nicer to tell, but it does a terrible job at sharing learnings. For this we need to learn to be more open and vulnerable. It is OK if a product is not 100% sustainable. Fairphone is not. It does not matter, if you have a clear vision where you want to go and work hard to improve. There is no such a thing as 100% sustainable anyway!
“Sharing your challenges is the fastest route to solving them.”
So here’s a message to all my fellow (potential) front runners: Do not stay on the surface but dare to dive into the trenches! Look beyond results and show us what you did right or, even better, what went wrong. It is the only way for us to learn from each other and keep from making the same costly mistakes that slow our progress. This may feel counterintuitive at first/. We are trained to favor success stories and shy away from negativity. But you can talk about your challenges without being a downer, trust me! Sharing challenges is not only liberating, but also the fastest route to solving them.