Over the last few years, tech companies have been under increased scrutiny to ensure that the gadgets they create are manufactured responsibly. That covers everything from where they source the minerals used to create components, through to the people working in factories, packing, shipping and recycling programs. But when you're standing in a store, cash or credit cards at the ready, how do you now your money is supporting an ethical supply chain?
How "Green" Are Tech Companies?
In their Guide to Greener Electronics 2017, Greenpeace says "behind this innovative 21st-century technology lie supply chain and manufacturing processes still reliant on 19th-century sources of energy, dangerous mining practices, hazardous chemicals, and poorly designed products that drive consumption of the Earth’s resources".
Greenpeace looks at three main areas when they assess companies in the electronics sector; energy, resource consumption, and chemicals.
Their take on things is that about four-fifths of the carbon emissions associated with a new gadget occur during manufacturing. But they note that many companies make products with a finite lifecycle in mind - what many of us call "designed obsolescence". And there's a lack of transparency when it comes to what manufacturers tell us about their processes and materials.
Greenpeace provides a score card for the 17 companies they looked at. They gave Fairphone (a company I'd never heard of till today) their highest mark - a B.
Apple was the highest ranked of the major tech businesses scoring a B- with Dell and HP picking up a C+ and Lenovo joining Microsoft with a C-.
Emerging Chinese brands Xiaomi and Oppo scored F grades, as did Amazon.
Another list you can look at is the Newsweek Green Ranking. Although the list is very US focussed it looks at the 500 biggest companies by market capitalisation across the world. It ranks Cisco highest in tech companies with Apple not far behind. Their ranking of PC makers puts Apple at the top, followed by HP, Microsoft, Lenovo and Samsung rounding out the top five.
Shop Ethical doesn't rank companies but does provide profiles for many popular brands. Their guides look at where companies have been praised and criticised as well as extra information on affiliations and certifications they might have.
The good news is that most of the major manufacturers are getting better at producing their hardware ethically. We see more recyclable materials being used and companies are aware that consumers are increasingly aware and concerned about the environmental footprint of their gadgets.
Unfortunately, it's pretty tricky to discern the difference when you're standing in a store. And most of the guides we see focus at a company level. But I suspect that there's a world of difference in the recyclability of a laptop or smartphone made with plastic casing compared to one made from aluminium.
If you're planning to buy a new computer, tablet, smartphone or other gadget, take the time to look for the maker's environmental statement. Do they have a commitment to being carbon neutral? Do they have a recycling program? What are their ethical labour and material sourcing policies?
When you buy a new device, do you consider what will happen to it when you no longer need it? Will it be recycled to a family member or friend? Will you sell it on the used market? If the device is no longer usable, will it end up in landfill or can it be broken down and the minerals and components separated and reused?
You May Not Be Able to Tick All The Boxes
A recent article by Choice quoted Gordon Renouf from Ethical Consumers Australia. He said you should think about an issue you care about and find out how you can have the biggest impact in that area. It might not be possible to source a product you need that ticks every box.
In a conversation with a friend over the weekend, her focus was on ensuring products were made using labour that was fairly paid and that children were not being exploited. You may be more concerned with environmental issues.
That doesn't mean the other things aren't unimportant. But it might not be possible to satisfy all of your criteria today.