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Which smartphones and tablets are the greenest?

Guide to Greener Electronics
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Awareness about the negative impact we are having on the planet has been growing in recent years. Big business and conspicuous consumption has contributed to pollution in the air and water, the production of toxic chemicals and waste, and dangerous working conditions for many workers. Climate change is undoubtedly having an impact on our planet. What can you do if you want to enjoy the latest smartphones and tablets, but minimize the potential harm caused in their production and use?

In this Earth Day series, we’re going to take a look at how you can check whether your devices are eco-friendly, highlight some handy accessories that are environmentally conscious, and take a look at some green apps dedicated to a sustainable future. First, how do you find the most eco-friendly phones and tablets.

What does eco-friendly or green really mean?

The first obstacle you run into when you try to figure out whether a tablet or smartphone has green credentials is the complete lack of a consensus on what green or eco-friendly actually encompasses. Are we talking about the entire lifecycle of a product? There’s a lot to consider, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some questions to ask:

  • What materials are used?
  • Where did the materials come from?
  • How was the product manufactured with regard to worker conditions and pay, energy usage, and pollution?
  • Where did the packaging come from and how was it made?
  • How energy efficient is the device?
  • How easy is it to recycle and what waste products will it leave behind at the end of its life?

You may also want to consider whether the companies selling these devices are committed to eco-friendly practices at corporate level. Do they use clean energy, source sustainable supplies (like paper), and recycle at their offices? Do they have schemes to recycle or repurpose their products and extend the life cycle? Do they take part in any eco-friendly initiatives or voluntarily register for green assessment?

Independent assessment

If you ask a company how green they are, then they’ll always put their best side forward. If you want to get a realistic picture of their commitment, then you have to turn to independent assessors.

Ethical Consumer: For a really detailed breakdown of environmental and ethical considerations, you should check out the Ethical Consumer website. It has a comprehensive guide covering most of the top manufacturers, and rates them out of 20, providing links to stories related to various aspects of their business from environmental reporting, to workers’ rights, to political activities. You can use the slider controls to dictate what is important to you and customize the score, but you have to subscribe to get full access to the data.

Guide to Greener Electronics: You could also check out the Guide to Greener Electronics, published annually by Greenpeace. It focuses on three areas to determine a company’s score out of 10: energy and climate, greener products, and sustainable operations. You can find a detailed breakdown of the criteria used via the link above.

EPEAT: Then there’s the EPEAT register which is billed as “The definitive global registry for greener electronics.” It made headlines when Apple revealed it was dropping EPEAT certification and then reversed the decision after complaints from loyal customers. Sadly, EPEAT does not yet cover smartphones.

Green guides from wireless carriers

Virtually all carriers offer refurbished devices and/or trade-in programs. Most of them have recycling schemes in place, but some go a little bit further.

AT&T EcoSpace: AT&T has something called EcoSpace where the company highlights its eco-friendly side. It also has an eco-rating system for smartphones that gives each handset a score out of five, based on five criteria. For the record, the only two phones with five stars ratings right now are the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate and the Samsung Galaxy Rugby Pro.

Sprint eco-criteria: Sprint also has its own eco-criteria for products, which also gives products a rating out of five, but is based on six criteria. The Samsung Replenish and LG Viper appear to be their highest rated eco-friendly phones with scores of four out of five.

Verizon Sustainability: Verizon has a Sustainability page where it highlights various recycling and donation schemes for old handsets and also highlights what it does as a company to be greener.

Who is the greenest of them all?

Figuring out the greenest manufacturer for you really depends on exactly what criteria are important to you and who you trust. It’s worth mentioning that many of the assessment schemes are voluntary. Apple doesn’t participate in any of the carrier rating schemes, preferring to publish its own guide to Apple and the Environment.

An Indian company called Wipro tops the Greenpeace list with 7.1 out of 10, followed by HP with a score of 5.7. Nokia, in third, is the best-placed smartphone manufacturer on the list with a score of 5.4 out of 10. Apple scores 4.5 and Samsung scores 4.2.

If we just look at the environment and product sustainability at Ethical Consumer then Nokia comes top again with a score of 12 out of 20. Motorola also scores 12 out of 20; HTC and Sony score 10; Apple and Samsung are both on 8 out of 10.

Obviously, the criteria you use changes the rankings significantly. If you were just to look at the use of hazardous materials in phone manufacturing, like Healthy Stuff did, then you’d get a chart like this (the lower the number, the less hazardous materials and chemicals were used).

Image used with permission by copyright holder

How to choose your device

The most obvious things you can do to reduce environmental impact is to avoid upgrading, though we doubt you want to hear that (upgrading is so fun), or to buy second-hand. But if you are feeling the irresistible pull of a new device, how do you choose?

There is no definitive guide to the best smartphones from an eco-friendly perspective and the tablet market is lagging even further behind. The best you can do is to check the sources listed, cross reference them, decide what’s important to you, and choose accordingly.

The annoying thing about hunting for eco-friendly products is that sometimes the most eco-friendly smartphone or tablet is manufactured by a company which is not very environmentally conscious as a whole. Samsung is the perfect example, because it does produce some eco-friendly handsets, but it does not score well as a company. There is still some value in choosing an eco-friendly device because companies are ultimately driven by profit and the stronger the green dollar gets, the harder they’ll work to go after it, or so we hope.

(Top image from Greenpeace.)

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Simon Hill
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Simon Hill is an experienced technology journalist and editor who loves all things tech. He is currently the Associate Mobile…
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