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 e-waste 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 worker’s rights.
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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.
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. 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.
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.