Eco Friendly and Ethical Electronics: Plug in for the Planet
Sustainable technology is much like sustainable fashion.
It’s heavily influenced by the materials that go into each product, as well as the supply chain practices behind that shiny Macbook.
However, unlike sustainable fashion, finding solutions to the environmental and ethical issues in the technology industry hasn’t been as, well…fashionable.
So, what can you do, as a consumer looking to buy ethical electronics or ethical appliances?
The number one thing: make your gadgets last. Seriously, you simply don’t need the latest iPhone.
After that, buy secondhand; or support more ethical electronics brands when you do need to upgrade. While many of these brands are still in the early days of improvement, supporting them supports the shift towards electronics that are better for people and the planet.
Fairphone has done the nigh impossible task of creating a smartphone with conscious materials and ethical supply chain practices.
We can’t wait until this list covers each electronic device used in our homes.
Until then, follow the 0s and 1s to the end of the article to see why it is important to consume electronics consciously and to learn about how we found the most ethical electronics companies.
*This post contains affiliate links
Secondhand & Refurbished Electronics
1. APPLE REFURBISHED
The most ethical and eco friendly way to upgrade your iPhone or get a “new” MacBook?
Apple may pump out new gadgets at lightning-charger-speed, but did you know they do also try to keep older ones in use?
Their professionally refurbished line comes with a one-year warranty and includes all of the products in their usual lineup: Mac, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch, iPod, Apple TV, and accessories.
Apple Refurbished can provide ethical consumer electronics by keeping a single item in rotation longer.
Every “like new” device has been tested to meet Apple’s high standards. In some cases, it’s also been repaired with original Apple parts.
Taking a bite out of e-waste, giving that iPad a second life prevents it from being dumped in a landfill, where it will release toxic chemicals like mercury, beryllium, and lead.
And the new MacBook you’re eyeing?
Four-fifths of its total energy consumption takes place during production. Buying refurbished has a significantly lower carbon production and still leaves you with a quality Apple product.
Available: Apple Refurbished
Gazelle gives life to used smartphones and other devices.
They provide an option for buying and selling phones, laptops, and tablets from a range of brands, like Apple, Google, Samsung, and Motorola—to name just a few.
Gazelle sells “certified pre-owned devices”.
This means that, while the device in question may have some wear and tear, it’s been subjected to a 30-point quality inspection.
Plus, customers get a device at a price that’s only a fraction of what it would be to buy new.
If you have old devices you aren’t using, they make it easy for you to do your part in extending consumer electronics lifecycle by buying your devices fast and outright via an Amazon Gift Card, PayPal or check.
3. BEST BUY REFURBISHED
Best Buy Refurbished products are products that were returned, checked, repaired (if necessary), and listed for resale.
Their sustainable electronics (refurbished) product range is impressive: laptops, monitors, computer accessories, printers, smartwatches, cellphones, audio equipment, TVs, home theater equipment, video game consoles, and more.
Every product is put through strict testing routines to ensure it works like new.
Some items are Geek Squad Certified, meaning that it meets the strictest standards for repair and is backed up by a 90-day Limited Warranty.
With such a huge range, Best Buy isn’t as particular about specific brands and models like some other used electronics dealers.
Best Buy also offers a Trade In service along with some resources for proper recycling of old devices.
Available: Best Buy Refurbished
4. AMAZON RENEWED
Here’s one exception though: their refurbished collection, Amazon Renewed.
Their range includes smartphones, computers, tablets, cameras, gaming, headphones, home entertainment, tools, home and kitchen appliances like eco kettles, lawn and garden, office products, portable speakers, and smartwatches.
We typically wouldn’t think of Amazon as one of the ethical places to buy electronics, but this offshoot of Amazon is a great place to buy pre-owned, refurbished, and open-box products.
Everything is professionally inspected and tested. This entails a full diagnostic test, repair/replacement of faulty parts, and cleaning.
All products come with at least a 90-day guarantee.
Refurbished items on Amazon Renewed are generally cheaper than other companies, too.
Available: Amazon Renewed
New Ethical Electronics
Fairphone is “the phone that cares for people and planet.”
This Certified B Corporation is in a class all their own as maker of the world’s most sustainable smartphone.
They sell (or rather, cell) two Android 10 models, as well as sell spare parts and accessories.
Where they really stand out though is their dedication to using fairer, recycled, and responsibly mined materials in the phones.
These include Fairtrade certified gold, conflict-free tin, responsibly-sourced tungsten, recycled rare earth, post-consumer recycled plastic, and roughly 50% recycled copper.
They have a transparent supply chain and are working towards providing all workers at their final assembly factory with living wages. We know that may sound like a long way off from being truly ethical, but compared to the rest of the industry, it’s huge.
They also have a Uganda Gold project and Fair Cobalt Alliance to reduce child labor.
Fairphone not only creates products that last from sustainable materials, but also offer options for reuse and recycling.
Fairphone is currently only available in the UK and Europe so the rest of us will be eagerly awaiting their global expansion 🙂
Available: Fairphone (available in UK and Europe)
6. HOUSE OF MARLEY
Created in collaboration with the Marley family (yes, that one), House of Marley is dedicated to carrying on Bob Marley’s legacy by combining his love for both music and our planet.
They’re one of the best brands for new eco friendly electronics such as headphones, speakers, and turntables—so you can listen to Songs of Freedom as it was meant to be heard.
Don’t be deterred by the price tag for these ethical electronics because their prices are extremely comparable to—or even slightly less than—other products. You still get superior sound quality, too!
House of Marley prioritizes mindfully sourced materials and sustainable fabrics.
These include bamboo, REWIND™ fabric (30% reclaimed organic cotton, 30% reclaimed hemp fabric, and 40% recycled PET), recycled aluminum, reclaimed silicone, FSC-certified wood, and organic cork fabric.
Available: House of Marley
In addition to their range of refurbished products, the tech giant is also making meaningful progress to new products. Which is critical given their history of planned obsolescence and rapid hardware updates.
The list of the most ethical electronics stores is short—and Apple seems to want to get on it.
They want to make their products—laptops, computers, tablets, phones, watches, TV, accessories, and more—greener for the more than the 1.65 billion people who currently own one.
Considering both e-waste and eco-friendly electronics, they’ve embraced a closed-loop production system by disassembling old products, diverting more than 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste every year.
They now incentivize recycling by offering credit toward your upgrade for trading in your old model.
Since 2018, they’ve been using renewable energy and all operations are now carbon-neutral. By 2030, every product will be carbon-neutral, too.
While you’re scrolling on that iPhone of yours, have a peep at their 2021 Environmental Progress Report.
Sustainable & Ethical Electronics Accessories
Nimble’s motto is “Tech for Good.”
Their eco friendly electronics accessories include portable chargers, USB-C cables, wireless chargers, wall chargers, and eco friendly phone cases.
Nimble accessories start out with better materials, like bioplastics, recycled aluminum, organic hemp, and recycled water bottles.
Not only are these materials better during life, but at its end. Nimble chooses them so repair, reuse, and recycling is easier and less energy intensive.
Speaking of end of life, every purchase comes with a biodegradable bag where old tech can be sent back to be recycled for free.
By 2022, they’ll be e-waste neutral by recycling one pound of e-waste for every pound of products that they sell, thanks in part to their One-for-One Tech Recovery Project.
Nimble is also a Certified B Corporation, member of 1% for the Planet, Climate Neutral Certified, and a Public Benefit Corporation.
Pela is one of the biggest names in sustainable phone cases—and for good reason.
They made the world’s first biodegradable phone case for both iPhone and Android but now also offer AirPod cases and smartwatch bands.
Despite how slim the cases are (so no pocket crowding!), we can personally attest to their shock absorbency,
These phone cases aren’t plastic but Flaxstic, a bioplastic made from leftover flax (you know, the same plant linen is made from).
It’s free of heavy metals, BPA, and phthalates.
These phone cases use 35% less water, and result in 25% less carbon emissions and 70% less waste.
While not certifiably home compostable (they take 6 months to 2 years to fully break down, depending on temperature), they’ll break down much faster in an industrial facility.
The brand also has a Pela 360 program where customers can return their old plastic case to be upcycled or recycled properly.
As a Canadian company, most operations are kept domestic, but some manufacturing takes place in ethical factories in Hong Kong.
Pela Case is also a member of 1% for the Planet and hosts a Pay It Forward referral program. This means if you refer someone to Pela, they’ll donate $3 to any charity on your behalf.
Available: Pela Case
Their name’s a big giveaway, Oakywood makes beautiful wood-worked accessories for your environmentally friendly electronics.
What started out as a one-man, few-product operation, Oakywood has grown into a global business offering wooden laptop stands, phone cases, headphone stands, tablet stands, iPhone stands, and wireless charging stations.
These electronics accessories are nature-inspired and made from Portuguese cork, merino wool felt, and solid Polish oak and American walnut.
Everything comes from sustainable sources.
For every purchase, they also plant a tree. Through their partnership with One Tree Planted, they’ve already planted over 25,000 trees.
11. ELVIS & KRESSE
Elvis & Kresse is a Certified B Corp that’s embedded the ideals “Rescue, Transform, and Donate” into their business model.
This started with sustainable handbags made from decommissioned fire hoses from London’s fire brigade.
Now, it’s grown to mean using more upcycled materials in a larger range of products—including sustainable wallets, backpacks, and cases for phones, laptops, and tablets.
For more than a decade, Elvis & Kresse’ has been able to help London produce zero waste fire hoses.
In addition to decommissioned fire hoses, rescued Burberry leather off-cuts, reclaimed military-grade parachute silk, and other leather off-cuts find their way into this brand’s products.
Everything is made in either England or Turkey using 100% renewable energy and comes backed with lifetime repairs.
Available: Elvis & Kresse
For tech on the go, subscribe to Solgaard.
They have several different backpacks, most of which are tech-compatible and have been designed to accommodate laptop and/or camera storage with lots of padding.
For the ultimate tech protector, check out the Shore-Tex™ Lifepack, complete with an integrated solar-powered charger and Bluetooth speaker.
We have personally been using one for the last year and are very impressed by its durability, gadget protection, and sound quality of the speaker.
Shore-Tex™ is Solgaard’s material of choice, a durable fabric made from recycled ocean plastic.
All are designed to be long-lasting and come with a 10-year warranty.
Even for products not made from ocean plastic (like their non-vegan leather backpacks) Solgaard removes 5 lbs for every product sold through a partnership with The Plastic Bank.
Is there any better ethical marketplace for electronics accessories than a sustainable social enterprise?
That’s what SAWA is.
Their female artisan group is located in Kibera, Kenya, Africa’s largest slum. Every purchase directly supports women through access to employment and healthcare benefits.
Their offerings include airpod neck straps and charging cords.
Who wants a plain lightning charge cord when you can have a rainbow one!?
The 100% hand-beaded tech accessories showcase techniques that originate from Uganda’s Luo tribe and makes use of upcycled magazines
All 40+ of SAWA artisans receive a fair living wage, which allows them to pay for education for their children.
They also receive a contribution to a health insurance fund and a water filter that provides potable water anywhere.
WHY CHOOSE ECO FRIENDLY ELECTRONICS?
Throughout the supply chain, the electronics we know and love are problematic in a few big ways. These include:
Raw material mining
There’s a lot of mining involved to make many electronics—which is almost always associated with serious environmental consequences.
Raw material mining consumes large amounts of water, energy, and chemicals, and leads to soil removal and often irreparable ecosystem damage.
Metals mining has also been associated with some of the world’s worst conflicts. Electronics specifically have contributed to more than five million deaths in the past several decades.
Electronic waste (e-waste)
It seems like there’s always something newer, faster, and bigger (or smaller) to buy in the world of electronics.
This means, in the US alone, we send around 400 million units of consumer electronics to landfills every year—when they often still work.
Many contain toxic materials, like mercury and beryllium. Around 40% of heavy metals found in landfills come from e-waste.
According to the EPA, one of the biggest problems with e-waste is that “an undetermined amount of electronics is shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately.”
Human rights issues
We’ve turned these vulnerable communities into our dumping grounds, sending roughly 50-80% of our e-waste every year.
Recyclers in these countries are exposed to extremely horrific conditions. Even if they’re not directly associated with the industry, they fall victim to poisoned air, water, and land.
On the other end of the supply chain, the electronics industry makes up a large proportion of the 40.3 million people who are estimated to be victims of modern slavery.
Not only that, but workers are exposed to roughly 1,000 chemicals (including heavy metals, arsenic-based substances, and carcinogens) when producing our tablets and smartphones.
All of this brings about two big questions: are electronics eco friendly and is there such a thing as ethical electronics?
These brands are showing it is possible, even if we’re still a long way off from seeing that ideal realized.
HOW TO BUY ECO FRIENDLY AND ETHICAL ELECTRONICS
When it comes to how to buy ethical electronics, here’s our thought process:
- Secondhand is always best: If you absolutely need a “new” piece of technology, do what you can to get it used. Resale sites like Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree are a good place to buy secondhand, in addition to the refurbished options mentioned above.
- Ethical sourcing of raw materials: Does a brand consider child and forced labor? How transparent is their supply chain? Are they taking steps to support mining communities?
- Ethical manufacture: What about what happens after raw materials are sourced? Are factory workers supported with safe working environments and fair, or living, wages? Are steps being taken to minimize their exposure to hazardous chemicals and materials?
- Quality and longevity: Is the product built to last? Is it durable, or will it fall victim to planned obsolescence? Are repairs or part replacements available? Is there a warranty?
- End of life policies: What happens when the product can no longer be used? Can it be properly recycled? Are there parts that can be reused in new products? What else is a brand doing to keep products out of landfills?
What is clear is that electronics brands typically don’t get all of this right but we applaud those that have at least taken steps to improve a very dirty industry.
HOW WE FOUND THE MOST ECO FRIENDLY ELECTRONICS
As the realm of eco friendly electronics is still relatively new, there’s no hard and fast way to assess them yet, but as a rough guide we considered the following:
A good rule of thumb is to focus on the materials, as they’re a big contributor to climate change, eutrophication, land use, resource depletion, acidification, eco toxicity, water depletion, and human toxicity—to name just a few of their environmental impacts.
Recycled, recycled, recycled.
This is one of the best things we can do when it comes to making eco friendly electronics. Many of these brands are making use of recycled plastic, as well as recycled metals.
While we probably won’t see these in a laptop anytime soon, it is comforting to see tech accessories made from bioplastic, organic hemp, recycled organic hemp, flax, sustainable wood, upcycled materials, organic cork, and recycled water bottles.
Supply chain and labor practices:
Beyond that, anything that can speak to how a material has been sourced provides some peace of mind. Certifications to back up fair sourcing is ideal.
It’s great to see many of these brands are patently against the human rights issues in the electronics industry.
While they have a long way to go, some companies are trying to clean up the industry’s act by supporting workers with fair, living wages and safe working conditions.
Green business practices:
Another key characteristic of eco friendly electronics is their end of life outcome, and so we asked, “What are these brands doing to prevent more e-waste?”
To compensate for the impact of their products, many of these brands (much like eco friendly search engines) offset their emissions through carbon offset programs and/or e-waste neutral providers or are supporting our planet by providing recycling programs or planting trees.
- Certifications: Climate Neutral
FINAL THOUGHTS ON ETHICAL AND ECO FRIENDLY ELECTRONICS
It’s easy to get hyped up on new tech, but truly smart and sustainable electronics are those you already have in home or in your pocket.
Even if you’re absolutely pining for that new iPhoneXX, take some time before adding it to your cart. Delayed gratification is better for your mood and for our planet.
If you do need to move out your older electronics before updating, read our guide on how to dispose of electronics first.
Have a technophile in your life? Please share this article with them so we can all stay connected in a more sustainable way.