A zero-waste lifestyle incorporates many challenges. What if I REALLY need something that I cannot buy secondhand? When I started my journey to reduce the environmental and social impact of my consumption, I realized how far away we are from a circular economic system where resources remain, instead of being transferred from underground mines by starving and abused children, to finally end up in soil and oceans. Therefore, ways have to be found to shift culture and consumption into sustainability.
There are many easy ways to avoid single-use items: bringing your own cup and towel eradicates the need for paper towels and cups, to just mention two. However, our life does (hopefully) not only consist of things we use to throw away daily. To make a raw and personal estimation, a person that renews his/her own laptop every 5 years, generates 10 trashed computers after 50 years. Without mentioning smartphones, headphones; adapters, cables and chargers; TVs, monitors, fridges, freezers, washing machines and so on. After all, our modern society cannot exist without electronics. But how do we make electronics circular and sustainable?
Today’s consumer electronics industry suffers from two main problems: Ethical and environmental impact of production and repairability. In order to invest our money in the best possible way, we need to purchase products which are easy to repair and ethical produced. So here are some guidelines you can follow.
1. Don’t buy a new product
The greenest electronics are those which are not bought. Think if you truly need what you plan to buy. You can stop already here. You made the most sustainable choice.
2. Buy second-hand or refurbished?
Generally, it is always a better choice to buy second hand. Keep one thing in mind: while second hand clothes are often given away for no money in return, phones and laptops are sold. Here, we should apply the same guidelines as buying new products to increase the value of circular and sustainable products on the market. Buying a modern phone second hand gives an incentive for the selling person to invest that money in a new phone. So, let’s give an incentive in the right direction.
Refurbished electronics can be also a good choice. However, be aware of the multiple meanings and interpretations, ranging from “opened and sent back to the shop” to “was defective and repaired again”. The quality of those products can vary depending on the reseller. Besides, here should the same criteria for purchases apply.
3. Buy high quality
Independently where you buy, here are some criteria on what to buy. The market is flooded with cheap consumer electronics. However, we need to consider how long a product last. If a laptop has a market price of less than 5000 kr, there must be a reason why similar devices have a higher cost. Even if the specs (processor, display, connectivity) look good, the laptop might be more prone to damage due to cheap chassis or components. I recommend reading professional reviews in addition to feedback from consumers.
Keep in mind, that certain components in a laptop, such as RAM, storage or Wifi card can eventually be upgraded, while many such as display, processor or graphics card cannot. Those components are specific for a certain device. It is wise to purchase higher specs in order to prolong the lifetime in terms of performance.
This is especially valid for phones and tablets. They are simply not upgradable. Although, here you usually don’t have different options but rather the choice of a different phone/tablet.
4. Check for repairability
There are some organizations which disassemble electronics and give a score on how easy it is to repair the device. This is extremely important for circularity and how often a smartphone, laptop or tablet can be repaired or upgraded will most likely have the biggest impact on the reusability of a product.
Try to think about or do 15 min research on how easy it is to repair a device. Even if, for instance, almost all new device batteries are not exchangeable easily, there are extreme differences in how a phone or laptop is engineered in order to access parts. I recommend the iFixit rankings which provide repairability scores, a list of the tools you need and score how easy it is to repair a device. Keep in mind that, even if you don’t repair it yourself, you might not want to pay a technician half of the original buying price to change a display.
5. Software and hardware support
Consider which operating system the device has and how well or long it will be supported in the future. For laptops this is less of a problem therefore you are usually free to upgrade or change the OS. Even Apple computer which lack the support for updates at some point, keep being usable, Windows and Linux support a computer with no set limits. In contrast, tablets and phones require more considerations. Here you rely on the manufacturer for software support. Chose a mobile OS where it can be expected that apps will be developed for it and also supported in the future. Apps like WhatsApp, Skype or BankID require constant updates to remain functional. iOS or Android are necessary choices, especially since even Windows phone is discontinued. But it depends on the device itself, how long it is supported by the manufacturer. An iPhone 5s, for example, was released in 2013 and got full support until 2018 and receives still security updates. The first iPad however, had full software support for 2 years and is in 2019 close to unusable, even if the hardware requirements are sufficient for certain tasks. LineageOS which is based on Android works actively on a continuous support for phones and tablets. To my knowledge there is no longer lasting alternative. If you want to be safe, look for LineageOS support. However, LineageOS is only more sustainable if there is someone who develops drivers for your phone model, and keeps doing that.
6. Does the company try to reduce its impact?
When a new phone is manufactured, many factors come into play. Environmental impacts such as soil poisoning, water usage or recycling fall into weight as well as social impacts like the source of metals, wages, and welfare of local workers. This diversity of factors which are hard to control delivers enormous challenges to companies for ethical and environmentally friendly manufacturing. One organization which tries to establish a scoring system for environment and ethics is the TCO certification. They rank brands and products in order to provide an overview which companies try to improve circularity.
So, what to do?
The perfect product is not yet available. However, I believe that considering the factors above, at least a better choice can be made. For example, Apple scores highest in environmental manufacturing among the bigger companies, although human rights remain an extreme issue in outsourced production facilities. But, while iPhones have a quite high score in repairability, MacBooks definitely do not. And if you look for a phone, the only recommendation I can make is FAIRPHONE which scores highest on repairability and ethical production among smartphones. They actively try to improve social and environmental impact of their suppliers in Congo and Nigeria. However, parts and the phones itself are not always available and the phone delivers outdated performance. But if you care about humans and positive social impact, it is the only choice on the smartphone market and may be the only example of a successful company with positive impact on sustainability in the tech industry.
In the end it is your decision, as a consumer for what you spend money. I hope you’ll decide to make a good one.
What is your opinion? Let us a comment!
Christopher von Beek
References are given via links in the text, here the full links in text form: