Last updated: October 2016
Taking IT seriously
Despite tablets’ growing popularity, laptops are still the UK’s most popular type of computer, appearing in over 80% of homes. HP is the most popular laptop brand followed by Lenovo then Acer.
However, in early 2014 Sony sold its laptops business to a Japanese investment firm who is only making the VAIO models in Japan. That was followed by Samsung announcing in September that it too would stop selling laptops in Europe to concentrate on smartphones and tablets.
Laptop, tablet or hybrid - which is for you?
A laptop’s larger screen, full-sized keyboard and large hard drive make many tasks easier, and they’re great for browsing the web.
Laptops are better if you:
- want to work on them, write long emails, organise files, and edit text documents, photos and spreadsheets
- want to store files and photos on the device and access them without an internet connection
- play DVDs.
A tablet is a gadget that’s slim and lightweight, and easy to use.
Tablets are better if you:
- want to play – browse the web, read ebooks, watch videos, shop online, and stay in touch with family and friends.
- want it to be more portable
- only need to type short emails, do internet searches and simple forms for online shopping
- don’t need it as your main storage device and are happy to keep some files online.
A laptop-tablet hybrid offers the best of both worlds. With touch-screens that rotate and flip and keyboards that detach or can be hidden away, they can be as powerful or portable as you want.
What is a Chromebook?
A Chromebook is a low-cost laptop, but instead of running the Windows 10 or Mac OS X operating system, a Chromebook runs Google’s Chrome operating system. They start up quickly and have a long battery life, but they are designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet, with most programs and documents living in the cloud.
Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba all make Chromebooks.
When choosing a brand of tablet or laptop you may also want to bear in mind the operating system that runs it. The operating systems are owned by three companies which all feature in this report – Apple, Google and Microsoft.
- Apple iOS – all Apple products
- Google Android – most non-Apple tablets.
- Google Chrome – Chromebook laptops.
- Microsoft Windows – most laptops and hybrids
You can also use an open source operating system such as Linux. Beginner’s guide to open source.
Laptops and conflict minerals
Campaigners have long identified revenue from the sale of mined elements as a key driver of civil wars and conflict in Southern countries
Of the six brands that scored best, only two of them, Apple and HP, were obliged to report on their conflict minerals sourcing, the rest were reporting voluntarily.
Conflict minerals ratings
See our feature on conflict minerals for an update on the Dodd-Frank Act.
Human rights abuses in cobalt mines
In January 2016, Amnesty International and African Resources Watch (Afrewatch) published a report detailing human rights abuses associated with artisanal cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Abuses included forced relocations of villages, water pollution and child labour.
Currently, no country legally requires companies to publicly report on their cobalt supply chains and yet the Amnesty report calls into question corporate assertions that they are capable of monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses or child labour.
See our feature on cobalt mining for more information.
Tin mining in Indonesia
Laptops contain tin which is used for the solder. And much of it comes from two Indonesian islands: Bangka and Belitung, which together are about the size of Northern Ireland and produce a third of the tin used worldwide.
Bangka and Belitung have been producing tin for centuries (“Bangka” means “tin” in the local dialect), and about 60% of the population are either tin miners or work in related industries. However, while mining used to be controlled by the government, in 2001 it was deregulated, and since then mining operations have spread indiscriminately, with scant attention to environmental or social issues.
Tin mining is lucrative but dangerous, and unless remedial measures are taken, it’s very environmentally destructive. Agricultural land and tropical forest have been destroyed, and dredging for ore at sea has churned up sediment which has buried coral reefs and killed off fish stocks.
A lot of the mines are informal operations, child labour is rife, and safety measures such as terracing pits are often ignored. Injuries and fatal accidents are common.
Friends of the Earth’s tin ratings
Over the last few years, Friends of the Earth Netherlands has been examining all the biggest phone and PC companies’ policies regarding tin sourcing, and has rated them on the extent to which they are encouraging better standards in Indonesia. They argue that it is possible for tin to be mined much less destructively on Bangka and Belitung if standards are improved. For example, sea dredgers can deposit leftover sand on the seafloor rather than simply dumping it overboard.
Foxconn, the hidden giant in your gadgets
The products in these guides are put together by, or built with components made by, subcontractors, mainly in China.
There’s a good chance that one of these subcontractors is Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturing company, based in Taiwan. It has factories in Asia, Brazil, Europe, and Mexico that, as of 2012, together manufactured approximately 40% of all consumer electronics products sold. It has nine factories in China, more than in any other country, and it is for these factories that it has attracted the most criticism.
It is famous for putting together Apple iPads and iPhones and it has been widely acclaimed as the hidden partner behind Apple’s success. Foxconn became notorious in 2010 because of a series of suicides among young workers after which it installed suicide-prevention netting at the base of buildings.
Since then, a long list of worker abuses has come to light: poor wages and working conditions including long hours, low pay, no freedom of speech or association, unpaid and excessive overtime and demanding production targets, humiliating disciplinary measures and unsafe working conditions.
Apple isn’t Foxconn’s only customer. It makes electronic components and finished products for a number of companies in these guides including Dell, HP, Microsoft and Samsung. Apple now undertakes annual audits which are verified by the Fair Labor Association, and whilst there have been some improvements, there is still a long way to go.
Foxconn’s Longhua facility in Shenzen is often referred to as Foxconn City. It covers 3 square kms, has 15 factories and employs over 200,000 workers. Many of them work up to 12 hours a day for 6 days each week.
Three chemicals are often used in electronics and have been highlighted by Greenpeace as the most hazardous – brominated flame retardants (BFRs), PVC and phthalates.
BFRs and PVC are both organohalogens. Some well-known (and very hazardous) examples of organohalogens include PCBs, DDT, and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) – all of which are now globally banned by the United Nation’s Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) treaty.
BFRs are used primarily in the plastic components, like the casings of laptops and mobile phones, but also in circuit boards. Several BFRs have known toxic properties, are highly resistant to degradation in the environment and are able to bioaccumulate (build up in animals and humans). Some are now widespread environmental pollutants, with higher levels generally being found close to urban and industrialised areas (in the atmosphere and rivers).
As well as being released from factories making goods such as electronics, these compounds can be released from such products during use, leading to their presence in household dust and resulting in increased human exposure. And when these products reach the end of their useful lives, some disposal or recycling operations (e.g. incineration, smelting, or the burning practices commonly used in informal recycling in the developing world), can release dioxins.
Dioxins are a class of chemical compounds that are widely recognised as some of the most toxic chemicals ever made by humans and many are toxic even in very low concentrations. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1994 Dioxin Assessment concluded that there was no safe level of dioxin exposure for humans.
A couple of widely used BFRs have been restricted by the European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), but not all are restricted by law.
PVC is a chlorinated plastic that is used for insulating wires and cables. PVC is one of the most widely used plastics but its production, use and disposal create toxic pollution. Like BFRs, dioxins are released when PVC is produced or disposed of by incineration (or simply when burnt).
Phthalates are a group of chemicals which are widely used as plasticisers (softeners) in plastics, especially PVC. These chemicals migrate out of the material over time into the surrounding environment. Many phthalates are toxic to wildlife and humans. Some widely used phthalates are known to be capable of causing changes to both male and female reproductive systems in mammals. Four of the most toxic phthalates are restricted by the RoHS Directive.
What about the companies?
Apple leads the way in the electronics industry having phased out PVC and BFR in its products, including its cables, way back in 2008. Apple products are also free from phthalates. So there is no excuse for other companies not to follow suit.
To get our best rating for a toxic chemicals policy, like Apple, a company must have phased out the use of all three chemicals or have set a date by which it will have done so.
Unfortunately, most companies get our worst rating for having no commitment to totally phasing out all three of these chemicals. Companies who get a worst rating for toxic chemicals could also not get a best rating for Environmental Reporting. This affected two companies who would otherwise have got a best rating in the Environmental Reporting category – ASUS and Fujitsu.
Some companies get our middle rating for toxic chemicals because they have some toxic chemical-free products and have committed to phasing the chemicals out, but have not gone that step further to get our best rating by setting a target date for their phase-out.
Best toxics rating – Apple
Middle toxics rating – Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba
Worst toxics rating – ASUS, Fujitsu, MSI,
Toxic chemical-free models
We checked all the brands and models that are covered in these guides to see whether any of them were PVC-, BFR- and phthalate-free. Those models that were ‘toxic chemical-free’, represented by a [S] next to the brand name on the score tables, received a positive mark in the Product Sustainability column. Models that were PVC- and BFR- free received a half point, whilst models that were free of all three chemicals received a whole point.
PVC, BFR and phthalate free
All Apple MacBooks
PVC and BFR free
Dell XPS, Precision and Latitude (excluding peripheral accessories)
‘TCO Certified’ is the international sustainability certification for IT products that was set up in 1992 and is run by a Swedish non-profit organisation. It is a voluntary scheme which is third-party verified. TCO certification combines requirements for social responsibility at the site of manufacture, user safety and ergonomic design, and minimal environmental impacts for the product during its whole life cycle. The criteria include Energy Star (a voluntary US government energy efficiency program), compliance for energy consumption, zero or low use of certain hazardous substances, and involvement in conflict-free minerals programs.
Only two companies Dell and Lenovo – had any TCO certified models:
Laptops – 9 Dell Latitudes, Dell Chromebooks and 9 Lenovo Thinkpad models.
On the score table we have given TCO Certified models a Product Sustainability plus point, highlighted by a [T] next to the brand name. To find the Dell Latitude and Lenovo ThinkPad laptop model numbers, go to the TCO product database.
Laptops consume 85% less energy than a desktop computer. Tablets consume even less energy than a laptop because they have lower-powered processors, and hybrids are somewhere in between. E-readers and smartphones consume the least amount of energy in use.
But energy is also consumed by data centres whenever we access the internet. According to a 2015 Greenpeace report, “The rapid growth of the cloud and our use of the internet have produced a collective electricity demand that would currently rank in the top six if compared alongside countries; that electricity demand is expected to increase by 60% or more by 2020 as the online population and our reliance on the internet steadily increase.”
As internet use and cloud storage increases, there is more and more demand for data centre capacity, ultimately increasing the total amount of electricity consumed and the associated pollution from electricity generation.
Greenpeace is campaigning for leading internet companies to power their data centres with renewable energy rather than dirty energy like coal.
Prolonging battery life
- turn down brightness of screen
- use power saving modes and set sleep mode and screen timeouts to minimum
- close apps
- close Wifi, GPS and Bluetooth until you need them.
The Chinese-based Lenovo Group has risen to the top of the worldwide PC market, ahead of HP and Dell. Lenovo was formed from the acquisition of IBM’s Personal Computing division in 2005. In 2014 it bought Motorola’s mobile phone business.
Lenovo is part-owned by the Chinese private investment firm Legend Holdings, which also has a stake in Pizza Express. As a result, Lenovo picks up marks for Pizza Express’ unsustainable sourcing of palm oil.
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 MINTEL – Desktop and Laptop Computers, August 2014
2 MINTEL – Tablet computers November 2013 3 Kai Löffelbein, Tin Mining in Indonesia 4 Ibrahim, 2016, Bangka Tin, And The Collapse Of The State Power 5 Friends of the Earth, Mining for smartphones: the true cost of tin, November 2012 6 Friends of the Earth Netherlands, ranking 2016 7 “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work”. New York Times. 21 Jan 2012
8 Sweatshops are good for Apple and Foxconn, but not for workers, SACOM May 2012
9 Deaths of Foxconn Employees Highlight Pressures Faced by China’s Factory Workers, Wall St Journal, 21st August 2016 10 www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/detox/electronics/the-e-waste-problem/what-s-in-electronic-devices/bfr-pvc-toxic
11 Flame retardants & PVC in electronics, Electronics Takeback Coalition – www.electronicstakeback.com/toxics-in-electronics/flame-retardants-pvc-and-electronics, viewed October 2016
12 Clicking Clean – How companies are creating the green internet – Greenpeace, May 2015
This product guide is part of a wider report into the Electronics Industry. See what else is in the report.