I've just come to the end of my current contract with Vodafone, and decided to try investigating ethical options. This was partly prompted by a flyer from the Phone Co-op which has been sitting on my desk for several weeks. All our landline business is with the Phone Co-op, who are not the cheapest but are definitely the most ethical; that's why we're with them, so surely it would make sense to transfer my mobile business too.
I've been with Vodafone for several years and have got used to their system of having a new handset 'free' with each new contract. I need a new handset; my current one keeps crashing. The fact that I'd have to pay £199 for my new handset, with the Phone Co-op, was initially a shock.
Then I started doing some sums. The Phone Co-op do offer 'bundle' packages of minutes and texts for a set monthly amount, but they point out that a lot of people have bigger 'bundles' than they need, and therefore end up paying more per minute/text they actually use than they realise. For example, if your 'bundle' includes 800 minutes per month, but you only use 200, each minute effectively costs four times as much as you think. Everyone's usage is different, which is why it's hard to work out what constitutes a good deal when it comes to mobile phones. But the Phone Co-op recommend their pay-for-what-you-use system, which starts at 4p/minute for calls and 6p/text, with a flat rate line rental of £1.70/month. They suggest that this works out cheaper for most people, in the end - and my sums seemed to bear that out.
So far, so good. Then I started looking into the ethics of handsets. Boy oh boy, what a minefield! We're getting used to thinking about ethical issues when it comes to shopping for food or clothes. Electronic goods are a different thing altogether. When a single component can have a supply chain of a dozen companies, it's really REALLY hard to establish anything definite about the ethical credentials of a finished product. Also, several mobile phone companies are good in some areas but bad in others. For example, Nokia score highly on environmental issues, but low on social issues because they have told newly recruited workers in India not to join unions, and most of their manufacturing is based in China which prohibits unions. Research carried out in 2006 found that staff of handset factories in China, India, Thailand and the Philippines worked up to 72 hours a week with compulsory overtime, insecure employment contracts, unsafe factories, inadequate protection when working with hazardous materials, wages below the subsistence level, suppression of union rights and degrading treatment.
I can't buy an ethical mobile phone. It's not possible to get one made locally by a craftsman. It's also not realistic to go back to life without one. My clients expect me to have a mobile phone and I can't afford to lose business.
So I'm going to bite the Phone Co-op bullet. My reasoning is, if I pay upfront and separately for my handset, I'm more likely to take care of it and keep it for longer, which offers more respect to the poorly paid people who have worked in lousy conditions to produce it for me. Also, I will recycle my old phone through a charity. But I still feel as if I'm in bed with the enemy.