Last updated: March/April 2016
Under-exposed facts about cameras
The camera industry has been on a bit of a crazy roller-coaster ride over the last 20 years. Camera sales exploded in the first years of the 21st century, when everyone was scrapping their old film cameras and embracing digital. Then sales collapsed, probably largely as a result of the rise of smartphones. Since 2008, the total sales of stand-alone cameras has more than halved. Even sales of high-class cameras have been falling.
Given this, it is unsurprising that some companies have started to pull out of the camera market altogether. Eastman Kodak stopped making personal cameras in 2012. There are rumours that Samsung is following suit, and while we were writing this guide it announced that it is shutting the UK wing of its camera business. We have, however, still covered it because, for the time being, it is still part of the market.
With the exception of Samsung, which is South Korean, all of the companies examined in this guide are Japanese.
Photography’s toxic footprint
People often assume that digital photography must have reduced the use of toxic chemicals, as you no longer have to develop a whole roll of film in a lot of nasty substances just to get a single pleasing shot of your cat. However, there is good reason to believe that all that has happened is that the chemical burden has shifted from the darkroom into far darker, more hidden places – the distant places where electronics are created and destroyed.
At the manufacturing end, many processes in electronics production involve harmful substances. Several chemicals have been linked to a range of cancers, although there is currently a lack of hard data and the World Health Organisation has called for further studies. At the other end of their lifecycle, electronics contain dozens of toxic substances, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, that can leach out after disposal. Millions of tonnes of ‘e-waste’ are still being dumped illegally in poor countries.
Following Greenpeace’s campaign on toxic chemicals, we have created our own toxics policy rating (see table below) which focuses particularly on polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates. These chemicals are not only notorious carcinogens and endocrine disrupters, they are also eminently replaceable. While Sony, Nikon and Samsung all publicly state that they are phasing them out, only Sony has target dates for doing so. The other companies make no commitments at all.
All the camera companies were rated for their policy on the use of conflict minerals such as gold and tungsten.
All of the companies mentioned conflict minerals as an issue in their reporting but half of them scored our worst rating for having inadequate policies. Only Sony scored our best rating. See our feature on conflict minerals in our Electronics Report for the latest on the Dodd-Frank Act.
Companies flunk on supply chain policies
Japanese and Korean electronics companies tend to produce many of their high-value electronic components, like semiconductors, domestically but subcontract lower-value manufacturing to poorer countries like Vietnam, India and China.
There has now been a lot of publicity about bad working conditions in electronics manufacturing: overwork, bullying, accidents and casual employment are very common.
However, this publicity doesn’t seem to have translated into much concern from the companies examined. In some sectors that have been under pressure, such as clothing, we have found companies eager to boast about all the wonderful things that they are doing to improve conditions in their supply chains. This was not the case in the camera industry. Companies had little or nothing to say on the subject. All of them, without exception, received our worst rating for supply chain management.
Links to the military and surveillance
Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are all active in China’s ‘Homeland security’ (surveillance) market. Indeed, Panasonic boasts that “numerous Panasonic surveillance cameras have been installed across China to help create a safer living environment”. It’s lucky that, as everyone knows, Chinese government surveillance is entirely benign, otherwise this fact might not be so cheering. All three companies sell CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition software.
Several of the companies also have links to the military. Samsung sold its armaments division in 2015, but it still sells optical and communications equipment to military buyers, as do Panasonic, Fujifilm and Olympus. And Nikon is part of Mitsubishi, a group of interconnected Japanese companies which, as a group, is the 21st biggest weapons manufacturer in the world. Until recently it sold arms exclusively to the Japanese government as exporting weapons was banned in Japan. However, the ban was lifted in 2014, and it has now signed a major weapons deal with the USA.
On a more positive note, Panasonic and Samsung both make solar panels, and all the companies except Casio make medical imaging products.
Our feature on Optics companies and hunting included the Nikon, Pentax, Canon, Fujifilm and Olympus camera brands. Canon, Fujifilm and Olympus were the recommended brands.
Nikon is also subject to a boycott call by Viva! for selling telescopic sights for hunting rifles and promoting hunting, particularly big game in Africa.
Sony does particularly well on environmental issues, which is one of the main reasons we made it our best buy. It has a broad range of electronics that are free of PVC, BFRs and phthalates and aims to phase these chemicals out altogether by March 2016. It received a “soaring” (the best) rating by an organisation called Climate Counts in 2015, as it supports climate policies and is making a decent effort to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions.
Sony is also the only company in this guide that received our best rating for conflict minerals.
Less positively, in 2011 the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology analysed the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations and found that a very small number of companies, of which Sony was one, wielded a huge amount of control over the global economy. Sony also spent over $2 million on lobbying US politicians in 2014, and contributed nearly half a million to US political candidates, with a moderately even spread between Republicans and Democrats.
You may be using a Sony camera even without knowing it. Sony makes nearly half of the camera sensors in smartphones.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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1 Camera and Imaging Products Association, 2016
2 Electronics Watch, 2014, Winds of Change
3 Guardian, 14/12/2013, Toxic ‘e-waste’ dumped in poor nations, says United Nations
4 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, December 2015, The SIPRI top 100 arms producing and military services companies, 2014
6 Jul 2014, Japan gearing up for first military export deal in decades
7 The New Scientist, 2011, Revealed – the capitalist network that runs the world
8 Open Secrets, 2016