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Foto: Fairphone

Why do people buy a Fairphone, UvA PhD student researched

Sija van den Beukel,
9 maart 2023 - 15:41

What persuades people to buy a Fairphone? That's what UvA PhD student Maria Zwicker researched, commissioned by the manufacturer of the modular phone. Psychological factors appeared to play the biggest role, initial results show. “Technical specifications are not as important as you might think.”

Psychology has many explanations for why people make more sustainable choices. This can be due to social norms, a feeling of being able to change something, a positive attitude toward sustainability, or guilt.
This is interesting information for companies like Fairphone, a Dutch company that produces modular smartphones. These are phones whose parts are interchangeable and therefore can be repaired by users themselves. They enlisted UvA doctoral student Maria Zwicker to conduct research. Much of Zwicker”s doctoral research is about how consumers perceive bio-based plastics - plastics made from biomass instead of fossil resources such as oil - and what persuades people to buy them. That is part of a chemistry project led by Gert-Jan Gruter, professor of sustainable industrial chemistry at the UvA. Zwicker: “The step from bio-plastics to Fairphone is not as big as you might think: it”s the same approach with a different product.”

Maria Zwicker

The good news is that people often think positively about new, sustainable products, Zwicker discovered. They say they are willing to buy them and pay more. At the same time, they know little about them. “For example, people think that bio-based plastics belong in green waste, which is often not the case.”
Fairphone wanted to know how people who are not yet part of their customer base view the Fairphone 4. Zwicker was paid for conducting exploratory research but for which she had complete freedom, she says.
Not a status symbol
More than 2,000 participants from the Netherlands, Germany, France, and UK filled out the questionnaires. In all four countries, positive emotions (fun and excitement), attitude toward the Fairphone, and interest in green products were found to be most strongly associated with the intention to purchase the Fairphone 4. Uncertainties about the product and the value consumers place on status had a negative influence on the intent to purchase. Says Zwicker: “People apparently don’t see the Fairphone as a status symbol.”
What was striking was that phone specifications such as size, image quality, camera, and memory did not play an important role in the intention to purchase the phone. Zwicker comments: “That’s interesting because the economic perspective is that people will buy a phone with impressive technical specifications anyway, regardless of emotions or social psychological processes. What we are arguing is that the technical specifications are not as important to a large proportion of consumers as you might think.”

Part of the puzzle
The results give Fairphone a direction for further research. “Now that you know what factors are related to purchase intentions, you can start playing with that. Suppose Fairphone was indeed a status product; would more people buy it? Then the company could also, for example, evoke joy in marketing campaigns to increase purchase intent.”
Whether people actually go on to purchase a Fairphone remains to be seen. Even if people say they want to change their consumption behavior, in practice they often do not yet do so. Does Zwicker”s courage sometimes fail him? “Yes, but to combat climate change, consumer behavior is only part of the puzzle. Change is needed at all levels of government, business, and politics. I don’t think consumers alone can change the world.”
Still, she calls it hopeful that a company like Fairphone has been around for 10 years. “It’s not a start-up anymore. And companies making modular phones are on the rise such as Shift in Germany and the American company Teracube. That also puts pressure on companies like Apple to become more sustainable.”

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