We all love shiny new electronics. But every new smartphone or laptop comes with baggage. Weighing climate dread, terrible conditions for workers, energy usage, and worries over hellish ewaste graveyards can quickly kill your excitement about shopping for a new gadget. None of us wants to be complicit, but what can you do if these issues concern you?
Sadly, there’s no easy way to find ethically manufactured and eco-friendly electronics. But there are things you can do to reduce any negative impact your purchases may have. Here are a few ideas we’ve compiled—with the help of Tom Bryson, tech specialist at Ethical Consumer, a UK magazine that ranks brands based on a variety of categories, from environmental reporting to workers’ rights.
Updated April 2023: We added a section on energy use and a new link to find recycling services.
Table of ContentsRepair What You HaveBuy Used or RefurbishedDo Your ResearchStandards to Look forConsider Energy UseFinding Ethical and Eco-Friendly BrandsFinding Ethical RetailersWhat About Greenwashing?How to Dispose of Your Old Electronics
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Repair What You Have
The best way to minimize your impact is to avoid buying new devices if you can. The unpalatable truth is that every new gadget has a cost in terms of manufacturing, shipping, operating life, and, eventually, waste.
“Most of the environmental impact, including carbon emissions, occurs during the manufacturing stage,” Bryson says. “It is estimated that the electricity consumption of actually using a smartphone accounts for as little as 1 percent of the product’s carbon emissions.”
It’s best to continue using what you already own or get devices repaired to extend their lifespan wherever possible. Thankfully, with the US Federal Trade Commission voting to enforce the right to repair, this is becoming easier. Manufacturers like Apple and Samsung are starting to offer guides and repair kits, but there’s still a ways to go. If you want to check into how repairable your gadgets are, iFixit has a guide, and it’s also a great place to find tutorials, guides, and all the necessary components and tools you need to fix your devices.
Buy Used or Refurbished
Maybe your device is beyond repair, or you're shopping for a new category of device you're not too familiar with. What then? Try shopping for used or refurbished tech. You can sometimes get a discount on devices that are often indistinguishable from brand-new ones. You won't get as great a deal buying somewhere like Apple’s Certified Refurbished store, but you can rest assured you will get a perfectly working device in as-new condition, with a warranty.
For deeper discounts, you'll have to buy used from dealers or private sellers, but there’s more risk involved. Follow our advice on the best used tech to buy and check out our guides on how to buy a used phone and how to buy used devices on eBay to boost your chances of bagging a bargain while avoiding potential pitfalls.
Do Your Research
To manufacture electronic devices, companies need to source numerous materials and components, usually from a variety of countries. That often means the mining and assembly often take place in countries with low wages and scant protections for workers. “This complexity means it is difficult to say with certainty that any device is produced in a fully ethical manner that does not involve exploitation of workers and does not damage the environment,” Bryson says.
What you can do is take a hard look at the manufacturer behind the device you want and consider which issues are most important to you. Ideally, the company will have strong policies on managing workers' rights issues in the supply chain and sourcing materials in an eco-friendly way. Look for evidence on how a company is reducing its carbon emissions in line with science-based targets, and find out if it's attempting to reduce harmful chemicals in its products. Also, consider tax avoidance and policy transparency.
Searching for news stories and digging into a company's websites to see what issues they talk about can amount to a lot of work. Websites like Ethical Consumer have done some of the legwork here to condense this information into score tables for devices like laptops and smartphones.
Standards to Look For
There are several standards and labels that can help you assess the environmental and ethical impact of different tech devices. It's worth looking for the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) label, which is managed by the Global Electronics Council. Registered products must meet various criteria for environmental performance and impact.
Bryson recommends TCO Certified, a sustainability label for tech products that considers the broad range of social and environmental factors in every product's lifecycle. To score a TCO-Certified label, devices must meet criteria relating to the design and manufacture, including worker’s rights, conflict minerals, hazardous chemicals, user health and safety, durability, and recyclability.
Consider Energy Use
Consumer electronics require power to run. Some of that energy will likely come from burning fossil fuels, and the more power your chosen device or appliance needs, the higher your electricity bills will be. Many devices have labels that reveal their energy efficiency. Choosing more energy-efficient appliances and using eco modes can save a substantial amount of power over the lifetime of a device.
In the US, you will often see the government-backed Energy Star label, which means the device conforms to energy efficiency standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. You can also find an EnergyGuide label on some appliances that displays estimated annual running costs and energy usage. Energy labels in the UK and the EU show energy efficiency on a scale of A to G, energy consumption, and other details such as volume, noise, and water consumption where relevant.
Switching to LED from incandescent or halogen bulbs can significantly reduce your energy use and bills. Even smart bulbs and other kinds of smart lighting often require less power than traditional lights.
It’s also worth buying rechargeable batteries instead of single-use disposable batteries, but we recommend choosing carefully as some cheaper rechargeable batteries don’t perform as well or last as long as they should. My pick, recommended in our Best Portable Chargers guide, is Panasonic’s Eneloop range.
Finding Ethical and Eco-Friendly Brands
Companies are good at highlighting the fact that they use ocean-reclaimed plastic in a particular device or how they donated a percentage of their profits to a worthy cause, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are truly ethical or eco-friendly. Here are a small handful of brands that seem to have a deeper commitment to doing the right thing.
Fairphone: The first name that sprang to mind (and the only company Bryson and Ethical Consumer recommended), Fairphone has been talking about conflict minerals and striving to reduce their use since its inception. The company is also committed to ethical supply chain management and produces modular and repairable phones.Nimble: The power banks, cables, and other accessories Nimble offers are made using recycled and renewable materials. It also uses plastic-free packaging and provides free pre-paid shipping so you can send any old electronic devices, plastic cases, cables, and more to the company's ewaste recycling partner. Nimble produces an annual Impact Report that includes details of its third-party certifications.Humanscale: This office furniture brand constantly strives to minimize its carbon footprint, not only to avoid negative impact but to also have an overall net positive impact on the world. The company outlines its progress in an annual Corporate Social Responsibility Report.Kerf: Kerf makes wooden phone cases and mobile accessories using local wood sourced from Urban Tree. Cases are made to order, using only solid wood, and Kerf claims to use 95 percent of the raw materials it sources. The company does not use plastic and offers carbon-neutral shipping.Oakywood: Like Kerf, Oakywood turns out a wide range of beautiful, high-quality wooden products like headphone stands for your desktop using sustainable materials, including solid certified wood, ecological oils, Portuguese cork, and merino wool felt. The company also plants a tree for every product sold through a partnership with the nonprofit One Tree Planted.House of Marley: Primarily an audio brand making speakers and headphones using sustainable bamboo, recycled aluminum, and reclaimed organic cotton, House of Marley also plants trees through One Tree Planted and supports the Surfrider Foundation.MPOWERD: This brand makes a range of solar charging lanterns, lights, and batteries that are ideal for outdoor types. It also works with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits to provide clean energy lanterns to people living in poverty around the world.Finding Ethical Retailers
Choosing who you buy your electronics from is important, but it is complicated. Buying local from small businesses is best, but that’s getting tougher to do with electronics. Big retailers have their fingers in so many pies that it can be very tough to choose where to go. Some companies are great on working conditions but not so much on sustainability, and vice versa.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has an interesting chart that shows the top 30 retailers for green power use, and it's a good example of something you might want to consider when choosing a retailer.
Costco has a strong reputation for treating its workers right, with some of the best pay and benefits, but despite its commitment to sustainability, most reports suggest it could do more on that front. Costco produces an Annual Report outlining its code of ethics and employee benefits.Best Buy also treats its workers well, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, and runs the largest ewaste recycling scheme in the US. Best Buy publishes an annual Environmental, Social, and Governance Report with details of its worker programs and sustainability efforts.
For folks in the UK, Richer Sounds and John Lewis have employee-owned models, so workers share in the profits, and the Co-operative Group is member-owned. Richer Sounds has also campaigned for fairer tax.
What About Greenwashing?
You'll often see descriptions like “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “sustainable” used by many companies to make products more appealing. Bryson says to avoid taking these claims at face value. Instead, take a closer look. It’s common for companies to use a small percentage of recycled material in the casing of a device or offer a "low energy" setting, then crow about it to buy some goodwill. But many of the same companies do nothing to rectify the profound environmental and social issues associated with electronics supply chains.
How to Dispose of Your Old Electronics
When you upgrade to new gadgets, try to find a useful life for your old gear. You can often repurpose your old gadgets or pass them on to someone who can use them. One rule to remember: “Never place broken electronics directly into your bin to be sent to landfill, as they can leak toxic chemicals into the land,” Bryson says.
Even phone cases should not be thrown in the trash. Kerf will repair cases for free or offer up to 50 percent discounts on replacement cases when you send your old case back. Casetify offers a 15 percent discount on a new case when you send in your old case (from any brand), and Sonix offers 30 percent off new cases when you donate your old case. We can go on and on, but before you buy, it's worth looking at whether the brand has any similar kinds of initiatives.
At the very least make sure your devices are properly recycled. You can find a handy list of international ewaste recycling links at iFixit. Manufacturers like Apple and Microsoft will take old devices. Dell will even take electronics it didn’t manufacture. And you can recycle any electronics at Best Buy. Make sure you read our guide on how to sell, donate, or recycle your old devices.