Taking IT seriously
Jane Turner and Rob Harrison help you navigate your way through all the ethical issues
The personal computer sits triumphant at the apex of modern consumer capitalism. It is probably the most complex single item that most of us have in our homes. More than two thousand materials are used in the production of the microchip alone – just one of the many components in each machine.(1) Each of these materials – many of them toxic – will have been mined or processed somewhere on the planet by other businesses.
Trying to make ethical decisions amidst all this complexity is a daunting task. Fortunately, in the four years since Ethical Consumer last looked at the computer industry, the number of civil society organisations working to address these issues has increased considerably. Whilst people are still a long way from being able to systematically measure and manage all the impacts of personal computer (PC) manufacture, campaigners have at least identified and focussed their energies on the most urgent areas.
All this civil society activity appears to be having some effect – with transparency and reporting on social responsibility issues improving (albeit inconsistently) across the sector. Apple is perhaps the best example of this. The brilliant but spoilt child of computer manufacture had built a reputation of disdain for the general trend towards corporate social responsibility. However, as a result of high profile campaigning this has changed over the last few years, and its transparency – though still idiosyncratic – is now amongst the best. These changes, whilst welcome, are not the same as saying that the industry is, in any sense, humane or sustainable yet.
The second point to be made is that, although regulatory and consumer interventions are helping to drive a reduction in the impact of each PC, there is a trend towards more than one PC in each household. Even if we halve the impact of use, if we more than double the number we have, then the overall impact is growing rather than falling.
“Perhaps the most disturbing environmental impact of computers, however, is the way they displace reality. Instead of the infinitely complex and genuine world of animals, plants and human beings, we are presented with a rarified and simplified virtual world that, however fascinating, is illusory...The hours and days spent on the computer are hours and days subtracted from our real lives – from real love and real adventure, and also from real heartache and real sorrow. Not only are they unreal; our computer lives are not the ones we dreamed of. When we think of the lives we really want to live, when we picture our heroes, we don’t imagine them spending their days sitting at a computer. Nor when we come to die will many of us look back and regret that we didn’t spend more of our time staring at a video screen.”
John Nolt, Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.(2)
Profoundly impacting almost all aspects of work and leisure, the way people spend their waking hours has been transformed by the PC revolution in as little as twenty years. There is inevitably, and properly, some concern about where all this is leading. The New York Times reflected on a report that the “average person spends 8.5 hours a day in front of a screen” and the Daily Telegraph in the UK worried that “Children spend 7 hours 38 minutes a day online”.(3)However, it is a mistake to ignore the actual activities going on. If one person’s 8 hours were broken down, they might look like this: 2 hours spent reading/learning; 1 hour spent shopping; 3 hours spent working/selling; 2 hours chatting with friends or playing. Looked at this way, it doesn’t look too different to what humans have been doing for hundreds of years.
And the advantages of doing all this on computers are profound in that they allow us to have far more varied and complex interactions with people around us. On a remote Scottish island, for example, I can in theory communicate instantly with individuals all over the globe, either individually or with hundreds at a time – all in a very controlled and safe environment. There is actually very little real cultural pessimism around concerning computer use – and hundreds more people going online every day.
There are three real disadvantages though. The first is the sustainability of all this activity – the subject of moving global production onto a more sustainable path through our buying choices is the main focus of this report.
The second disadvantage is that there is emerging evidence that the sedentary nature of all this online interaction may (unsurprisingly) have negative health effects. A recent publication in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that spending more than four hour a day of leisure time in front of a TV or computer increased the risk of hospitalisation from heart disease twofold.(4)
The digital divide
The third disadvantage is that, as more and more human activity migrates online, the potential inequalities in society become more extreme. There are three main areas of concern here. A recent UK study showed that 25% of households had no PC and 29% no internet connection. This corresponded to 2 million children without internet access in an age where the correlation between owning home PCs and good educational qualifications were rising.(5)
The second social group where there are clear disadvantages in an increasingly online culture is older people. When we raised this issue in our email (!) newsletter recently, Rose Stockwell explained her position:
“Both my 90 year old parents run their lives, with increasing difficulty, without computers. Their banks keep telling them they can run their accounts online and get text messages on their mobile phones updating them on things. Additionally the banks are talking about no longer having cheque books...This is just a taste of the number of people telling them to do things online, which of course they cannot.
Mum gets frustrated because so often the alternative is to ring a number which inevitably leads to 10 minutes of listening to options – many of which mean nothing to her. And to add insult to injury I heard someone suggesting the other day that perhaps grandchildren or children could use their computers to do things for the grandparents. However, some things – like money – are often private.I think it is essential that all services remain able to use non-computer as well as computer systems, both for older people and for the times when there are power cuts and hacking or other disruptions.”
The third area of growing inequality is between rich western consumers and people in the Global South. At least 1.1 billion people are too poor to have access to this kind of technology.
As we mentioned above, computers are popular partly because they have increased the potential for human interactions exponentially. Indeed, amongst the pessimistic headlines in the Daily Telegraph recently we also discovered that: “Half of young people claim they are happiest online”.(6)
Most common though are commentators who point out how computing and the internet have shifted the balance of power significantly from big companies to ordinary consumers and, on occasion, to the civil society organisations which operate on their behalf.
Recent attention has focussed on, for example, the organisation of direct actions against tax avoidance by UK Uncut on Facebook. Others have pointed to the success of the global email campaign specialist Avaaz – which has won campaigns on issues as diverse as corruption in Brazil and the persecution of homosexuality in Uganda. Indeed, Ethical Consumer itself is an organisation which would not have been possible without the PC. Even before the internet, PCs were central to building our databases of companies, producing our publications and managing our customer lists.
The final key to making consumer culture more sustainable lies in the hands of businesses and governments by looking at their own purchasing of computer equipment. The EPEAT standard, mandatory for procurement of IT by all US government departments, is credited with driving better energy efficiency generally in the sector (EPEAT is covered in more detail below).
The European workers’ rights campaign group SOMO (covered below), is also doing work around procurement. It has a website at www.procureitfair.org which gives some examples of best practice in IT purchasing amongst European cities such as Zurich and Stuttgart.
There are also a range of activities around the digital divide. One from Practical Action is an annual No-Tech Day which asks people to give up their gadgets for one day to think what life is like for people in the developing world. It is due to take place in June this year. I wonder how many of us will attempt this? And of those that do, how many will succeed?
1 The Story of Stuff. Annie Leonard. Constable 2010
2 http://web.utk.edu/~nolt/radio/computer.htm viewed 24/1/11
3 NYT 27/3/09, DT 1/2/10
4 Jan 18th 2011 issue. Stamatakis et al
5 Guardian 28/12/10 No web access at home for 2m poor pupils warns charity
6 Daily Telegraph 13/10/09
Choosing a greener PC
Desktop computers can either have separate screens and keyboards or come as ‘All In Ones’ which combine the monitor into the same case as the computer, like the iMac. All In Ones are more portable than desktop computers but, like laptops, All In One computers are often characterized by a comparative lack of ‘upgradability’.
See also our Product Guides to Laptops & Netbooks, Tablets and LCD Monitors.
The top sellers
For desktops, about half of the UK market is in the hands of Dell, HP and Acer. Dell is the main supplier to households.
Despite having an almost tribal allegiance amongst its users, Apple products are not a big seller, perhaps because of their premium pricing (basic MacBook notebook starts at £867 from the Apple Store).
As we have seen above, assessing the impacts of computer manufacture is a complicated thing and there is, unsurprisingly, some disagreement among different commentators. We currently favour the analysis of Mike Berners-Lee whose book about the carbon footprint of everything was published last year and therefore has the most up-to-date data.(2)
He explains that, even before you turn it on, a new iMac has the same carbon footprint as flying from Glasgow to Madrid and back.(2) That’s 720kg of greenhouse gases.(2)
Using the computer is a less significant factor. He says that the carbon footprint from use would equal the computer’s footprint from manufacture after 16,000 hours – that’s 10 hours every day for five years.
This is at odds with the EU Ecolabel’s life cycle analysis which states that energy consumed in use is the dominant factor.(1) The discrepancy is due, says Mike Berners-Lee, to the fact that the footprint of some of the complex processes has been missed out.(2) With the footprint from manufacture as the dominant factor, Mike Berners-Lee says it doesn’t make sense to buy a new, more efficient machine on carbon grounds. See ‘Reuse, repair...’ below for info about upgrading your existing machine.
But if you are choosing a new computer, it always makes sense to think about its power consumption.(2)
Low power consumption
The power consumption is largely dependent on what type of processor (CPU) is used in the machine. Our IT team, Open Plan IT, recommend you look out for low power processors such as the Intel Atom which also requires no fan so machines are virtually silent. The 'Thermal Design Power' is what you’re after. It ranges from about 4w for some of the Atoms and VIA processors to over 130w for some of the Pentium D models.
Our favourite website for checking power consumption of consumer electricals easily is Sust-it.
When choosing a lower power machine aim for the best power consumption you can. As a guide, the following figures come from the sust-it website:
Desktop – power used when idle can range from 10W to 315W
Laptop – power used when idle can range from 5W to 22W
LED monitors – power used ‘in use’ ranges from 17W to 127W.
Using less energy
The amount of energy a computer uses is dependent on what the computer is doing. If you are playing games with graphics, charging or streaming video, then your processor will be working hard and be using more electricity than if you are just running a word processing program. But even when the machine is just turned on or ‘idle’, it could be using up to 100KW/h.(3) Computers apparently can use energy when connected to the power supply even when turned off, so it’s worth unplugging them at the end of the day or turning them off at the wall.(2) To minimise energy use the advice is to make full use of the computer’s power management tools (found in the Control Panel in Windows operating systems) so that it powers down and ‘hibernates’ when not in use.
Low energy desktop computers
According to VeryPC, the current typical desktop PC on the market consumes an average of around 115 watts. Three manufacturers of desktops in this report, VeryPC, Aleutia and Tranquil make computers that use less than 30 watts. They only make the base units so you’d need to buy a monitor, keyboard and mouse separately. Tranquil and Aleutia desktops are customisable so their price depends on your specifications.
VeryPC’s BroadLeaf PCs are BFR and PVC free and are Energy Saving Trust recommended. The basic model for home users, the Broadleaf BL43-H-i530 uses 24 watts when idling and costs about £600. It comes with a five year warranty as standard and comes with Windows operating systems.
Aleutia’s solar friendly PCs can run on a 12v DC battery. Its Di5 Core i5 PC is suitable for home use, consumes about 20 watts when idling and can come loaded with the Ubuntu open source operating system. It costs about £650 and has a one year warranty as standard. It can be bought on the Aleutia website.
An equivalent Tranquil PC model to the VeryPC Broadleaf (the ixLi 3 Power PC ) costs around £600 and consumes under 30 watts when idling. It has a one year warranty as standard and comes with a choice of Windows operating systems. You can buy it from the Tranquil website.
There are now a number of competing certification schemes for more sustainable PCs. We outline each one briefly below. Greenpeace’s electronics campaigns (explained in more detail above) also rate highly a number of models which have achieved the most in harmful chemicals reduction.
Ethical Consumer has given extra Product Sustainability marks on its ratings tables to some of these models. We show below under 'Green Desktops' the specific models for each brand which have received these recommendations and why. We have included those models which were listed in January 2011. But be aware that not all manufacturers’ models are available in all countries and manufacturers discontinue models and bring out new ones all the time.
For our Best Buy recommendations we checked the availability of these green models and have not included ones which do not seem to be on sale anywhere. Those that were only available in e.g. the USA are thus indicated.
Energy Star is a voluntary US government energy efficiency program. The US equivalent of Which?, Consumer Reports, has criticised the Energy Star criteria as being too weak. About 25% of products in a category should qualify but many more than that usually meet the standards. Plus, manufacturers test their own products for compliance with the standards and there is no independent verification.
The Energy Star 5.0 standard recommends over 1,000 models of monitors and desktops and over 3,700 laptops – too many to list here. The TCO and EPEAT labels below use the Energy Star energy consumption criteria.
Energy Saving Trust
A UK government energy efficiency program, an Energy Saving Trust Recommended desktop computer will use around 40% less energy in a year than an average new computer. www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/
The criteria cover the life cycle of the product from manufacture to disposal and include energy use, limits on the use of hazardous materials and recyclability of the product. www.eco-label.com/default.htm
TCO is a widely respected international eco-label developed by a Swedish trade union. It is a voluntary scheme which is third party verified. It uses Energy Star criteria for energy consumption, and a wide range of specific criteria for different products including limits on toxic chemicals and design for recycling. The TCO certification system also requires that the brand owner actively promotes social responsibility. It has a ‘Certified Edge’ label for those products it feels are at the cutting edge of environmental innovation. www.tcodevelopment.com
EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) is managed and operated by the Green Electronics Council, a US NGO. The label covers criteria for design, production, energy and materials use and recycling with ongoing independent verification of manufacturer claims after registration. EPEAT evaluates electronic products in relation to 51 total environmental criteria, 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria. Products are then ranked by EPEAT according to three tiers of environmental performance – Bronze, Silver, and Gold. To achieve the Gold standard, products must meet all 23 required criteria plus at least 75% of the optional criteria. Most criteria deal with the environmental impact of the product and include meeting the Energy Star standard for energy use. But corporate performance criteria are also included.
US greener electronics campaign group, the Electronics Takeback Coalition, says that EPEAT is weak in many areas. Ethical Consumer has awarded and extra half mark for models meeting the EPEAT gold standard.
See the full list of models at www.epeat.net.
PVC and BFR free products
According to Greenpeace, some brominated flame retardants (BFRs), used in circuit boards and plastic casings, do not break down easily and build up in the environment. Long-term exposure can lead to impaired learning and memory functions. They can also interfere with thyroid and oestrogen hormone systems and exposure in the womb has been linked to behavioural problems.
PVC is a plastic used in some electronics products and for insulation on wires and cables. Chlorinated dioxins and furans are released when PVC is produced or disposed of by incineration. These chemicals are highly persistent in the environment and many are toxic even in very low concentrations.
Greenpeace has been campaigning on these issues since 2004 (see above) and its list of PVC and BFR free models is integrated into our recommendations below.
Currently only the following VeryPC Broadleaf models of desktop are Energy Saving Trust Recommended: BL32-B-E53, BL32-B-E84, BL32-E-E53, BL32-E-E74, BL32-H-E53, BL43-B-i530, BL43-B-i661, BL43-Bp-i661, BL43-E-i530, BL43-E-i66, BL43-H-i530, BL43-H-i661, BL43-Hx-i661
Only ASUS has applied for and been awarded the EU Ecolabel for the following mini desktops which should be available in the UK: Mini desktops – ASUS Eee BOX models B208, B203, EB1002, B201, B202, B204, B206, EB1006
Only one company has applied for certification and met the criteria of TCO Certified Desktops 3: the Dell OptiPlex 980 range of desktops. They cost from £619 on the Dell UK website.
EPEAT Gold Label: Apple – 9 Macs, HP Compaq – 18 desktops, Lenovo – 21 ThinkCentre desktops.
Greenpeace virtually PVC and BFR Free list: all Apple Macs, HP Compaq 8000f Elite business pc, HP Compaq 6005 Ultra Slim business pc, VeryPC – All BroadLeaf PCs [ECRA Addition].
Greenpeace Green Electronics Survey Top 3: HP Compaq 6005 Pro Ultra-slim, Fujitsu Esprimo E9900,Dell Optiplex 980
Green All In One Desktops
Only Lenovo has applied for the TCO Certified Edge label and its ThinkCentre M90z range meet the Certified Edge criteria. They are also EPEAT Gold Label certified. They cost from £697 on the Lenovo UK website.
EPEAT Gold Label: Apple – 9 iMacs, HP Compaq 6000 Pro All-in-One PC
Greenpeace virtually PVC and BFR Free list: Apple iMac.
Because of the significant carbon footprint of making a computer, ideally the life of a computer should be extended by as much as possible. Re-using a computer can save up to 20% more energy than recycling.(1)
Repairing and upgrading is much easier with a desktop rather than a portable computer (because in the latter, most components are on the motherboard rather than separate). But even a laptop can have its memory or RAM upgraded (one of the most important upgrades you can do to a computer, according to our IT team at Open Plan IT). You can even do this yourself. Find out on the website www.crucial.com/uk how much memory your computer can take.
Another option is to buy second hand. Plenty of machines are available since a lot of offices and households replace their computers every two years.(1) You might be able to find some of the models listed in this buyers’ guide. Many computer retailers and manufacturers now sell second hand, reconditioned machines with warranties.
If you don’t want your old computer, you could donate it to a local organisation or charity. They all have minimum specifications for the equipment they will accept so check online.
Computer Aid International is a charity which provides refurbished computers for reuse in education, health, agriculture and not-for-profit organisations in developing countries. You can donate online.
Recycle IT! is a Community Interest Company providing training, paid work experience and real jobs for homeless and other long term unemployed people. They donate computers to charities and voluntary groups in the UK and abroad.
Computers for African Schools is a charity run by volunteers which provides computers to schools in southern Africa free of charge.
Donate a PC is a free ‘matchmaking’ service for individuals and organisations to donate un-needed hardware to UK charities, not-for-profit organisations and educational establishments.
There is also the option of donating it to another individual through sites such as Freecycle.
And finally, if you can’t upgrade, repair or donate then you’ll have to recycle. The EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive places a responsibility on computer manufacturers and retailers to provide or contribute to ‘takeback’ facilities.
• Ask a retailer if they'll take products back. PC retailers must provide free takeback facilities for customers to return old equipment for recycling whenever a replacement item is purchased. Some, such as the chain PC World, will accept old electronics in-store for recycling and reuse if you're buying a similar product.
• Take old computers to their local civic amenity site (visit www.recycle-more.co.uk to find your nearest recycle bank)
• Arrange for their local authority to collect the equipment (some local authorities provide a free collection service and others charge)
• Arrange for an electrical retailer delivering new equipment to take away the old equipment
E-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of international law, mainly because it is cheaper to recycle waste in developing countries. In 2003, in the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was illegally shipped to the Far East, India, Africa and China. In developing countries, there are few controls over the handling of the hazardous chemicals in e-waste. Recycling is done by hand in scrap yards, often by children. This issue was covered in more detail in our Buyers' Guide to Digital Cameras in EC124 (May 2010).
Reference 1 A Good Life – Leo Hickman, 2008
The Blackberry brand is owned by Research In Motion, whose website makes no mention of workers’ rights at supplier factories. RIM spent over $2 million on lobbying in 2010.(5) In 2009 several executives and directors of the company settled an investigation into the backdating of stock options by agreeing to pay penalties that totalled $62.5 million. According to the New York Times the company said the people involved had made “a similar offer” to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was also investigating.(6)
Creative Technology, maker of the Ziio tablet, has no publicly available Corporate Social Responsibility information. In 2010 it was sued by Foxconn in Singapore for allegedly failing to pay for supplies and services which totalled $500,576.(7) The Singapore-based company also trades in Asia, Europe and the US.
Top marks were given to Dell Inc by the Enough Campaign’s report ‘Getting to Conflict-Free Assessing Corporate Action on Conflict Minerals’. However, the company was targeted by Greenpeace in March 2009 for failing to meet, and postponing for two years, targets to eliminate PVC and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). It has been named alongside Acer as buying from a Chinese supplier that utilised child labour.(1)
Dixons Retail plc, the UK’s largest electronics retailer is an out of town centre shopping centre giant that owns Curry’s and PC World.(8) Advent Computers is the own brand of PCs for PC World, Currys and Dixons Online. Headquartered in Hertfordshire, it has subsidiaries in tax havens including Gibraltar and the Isle of Man. No publicly available information on policies such as the use of toxic chemicals and sourcing from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could be found.
The Fujitsu Group failed to achieve a top score for environmental reporting as it only had its carbon emissions data verified by a third party. The company has a Nanotechnology Research Centre, for which it loses half a mark in the Pollution and Toxics category. It has been criticised for poor working conditions at supplier companies in China and Thailand.(1) According to the company’s website it supplies IT services and solutions to the Ministry of Defence and national security agencies.
Hewlett-Packard (HP) received top marks for its conflict minerals policy. Chairman Mark Hurd resigned in August 2010 following an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment which, whilst not revealing violations of sexual harassment policy, had revealed other forms of workplace misconduct.(9)
HP paid most of all the companies in this report for lobbying expenses – more than $5 million in 201010 – but this figure is dwarfed by the remuneration package received by then-Chairman Hurd, which came to more than £30 million in 2009.(11)
Netherlands-based Iiyama is a subsidiary of Japanese company MCJ which has an estimated turnover of £587m. Iiyama’s website contained virtually no Corporate Social Responsibility information.
Lenovo was already the biggest computer maker in China when it acquired IBM’s personal computer operations in 2004.
In November 2010, LG was ranked 27th out of 29 companies in a report on water pollution and IT companies in China and was thereby highlighted as being one of the least responsive companies to the issues.(12)
A boycott of LG products was called in March 2010 by the Save Rapu-Rapu Alliance because LG part owns open pit mines on the island of Rapu Rapu in the Philippines which the Alliance say are threatening the livelihoods of the island’s inhabitants and the ecosystem on which they depend.
Mesh is a UK plc with an estimated turnover of £30m. It sells to corporate and government markets as well as to individuals. It currently has no ethical policies in the public domain.
MSI was established in Hong Kong in 1986 and has quickly grown into a global company with a turnover of £1.4 bn. It now has subsidiaries in four oppressive regimes (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Thailand) and two tax havens (Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands).
Philips is the only company to score top marks for both its supply chain and environmental reporting policies.
Samsung is one of the largest companies that we’ve covered, it has a turnover of £28 bn. Despite its massive income it still receives a worst rating for its ethical policies. A recent report from Electronic Engineering Times stated that Samsung workers were victims of occupational cancer caused by poor working conditions and that this had already led to deaths amongst employees.
Sony, despite its massive turnover of £35,323,439,500, still scores worst for its Supply Chain Management (see below). It seems it would rather spend money, $2.7m in 2010, on lobbying around issues such as Copyright, Patent & Trademark, Taxes, Trade, Environment & Superfund, Hazardous & Solid Waste, Energy & Nuclear Power and Taxes.
Toshiba is heavily involved in nuclear power in both Japan and the USA and also supplies military communications equipment to various governments.
Tranquil PC is a British company designing and manufacturing its products in the UK (although parts will be made by overseas contractors, final assembly will be in the UK). It produces low power and fanless (silent) desktops and the ‘carbon footprint’ of systems during a normal five year lifetime is offset by Tranquil as soon as you buy. It calculates the carbon dioxide gas that needs to be created to power the products it sells (over their serviceable life expectancy) – and then offset this by a continuous, managed tree planting campaign. [Ethical Consumer was underwhelmed by carbon offsets when we reviewed them in EC106].
VeryPC – Established and headquartered in Sheffield since 2004, VeryPC claims to have led the way in the development of green computing solutions and its environmentally aware approach to IT and computer manufacture. All VeryPC products carry the Made in Sheffield mark and are manufactured under ISO9001 for quality assurance. The chassis is manufactured in Yorkshire from European aluminium before final assembly in Sheffield [other components presumably made by overseas contractors].
Viewsonic is a relatively small company based in the US. It is currently trying to break into the developing markets, specifically China and India. Sadly it is not so innovative with its ethical policies scoring worst for all of them.
Viglen is largely a supplier to the corporate, education and public sectors. Apart from its all-in-one computers, you will need to buy a monitor for its desktop range. It is a subsidiary of Alan Sugar’s Amsprop London company.