So you want to buy a new laptop or a smart phone, but you’ve read about numerous social and environmental impacts during their lifecycles. You’ve learnt about polluting production processes – the leaching of toxic chemicals and the heavy reliance on fossil fuels. You are aware that making electronics requires the mining of minerals which is often entangled with conflict and unsafe work practices. Manufacturing has been linked to human rights abuses through forced labour and human trafficking. You also know that any product you buy will soon become outdated or break and at some point you’ll be contributing to our rising volume of e-waste. Despite this, a laptop or smartphone is essential for you to actively participate in today’s society (especially if you are an ethical blogger!). So, what do you do?
A while back, my old laptop succumbed to a quick death, drowning in a cup of tea. Pondering which laptop to purchase, I ventured into a brief online investigation of the electronic’s world, determined to find the most ethical or most sustainable laptop and to support innovative businesses who are actively forging change in the industry.
I located an informative blog entitled ‘The Green Stars Project’, which directed me towards several ethical consumer websites and I found a few more myself. I reached a similar conclusion to the blog’s author: their recommendations regarding ethical performance was conflicting as they used different assessment criteria. Luckily The Green Stars Project had done further research, referring to two other insightful reports:
- Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics (2017) evaluates the energy, resource and chemical use of 17 leading electronic manufacturers, providing an overall report card for each. Fairphone topped the list, followed by Apple, Dell and HP. The lagging environmental performance of Chinese smartphone brands Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei was also highlighted.
- The Enough Project’s Demand the Supply report (2017) assesses the ability of consumer electronic and retail companies to develop conflict free mineral supply chains in Congo, a country where gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum mining is often intertwined with armed conflict. Apple is a clear leader, reportedly due to their commitment to sourcing minerals from mines which support local communities. Samsung and Toshiba fared worst out of the electronics companies.
Doing my homework on electronics companies
I found the volume of information and issues to consider overwhelming. Did I care more about the safety of mining workers or fossil fuel consumption? Toxic chemical pollution or the growing volume of e-waste? Honestly, I care about them all! But with such a complex and geographically diverse product lifecycle, integrating sustainable and ethical practices within consumer electronics will take time and commitment from many players.
Padded laptop sleeve made from 100% recycled materials
In the end I took a different approach, concluding that it makes sense to extend product’s lives. Aside from environmental and social considerations, the laptop had to be practical for travelling and cover my basic word processing and internet surfing needs. I bought a refurbished HP Probook laptop, not the latest model, but it goes well (so far), with a lovely recycled plastic sleeve to protect it during travelling and wet weather. I’ve extended the life of a laptop, making a small contribution to reducing energy use, mineral extraction, pollution and e-waste in a world where these things are growing exponentially. What will your priorities be for your next inevitable electronics purchase?