Mobile phones

Ethical shopping guide to Mobile Phone Handsets, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Mobile Phone Handsets, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

The complex ethics involved in choosing a mobile phone

This guide includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 19 brands of mobile phone
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • Mobile phones and conflict minerals

This guide is part of our Electronics Report. See what else is in the report. 

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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Last updated: October 2016


The Smartphone Addiction


A recent survey showed that 81% of adults in the UK now own a smartphone, rising to 90% of 18-24 year olds.1 One in three UK adults and half of 18-24 year olds check their phones in the middle of the night, disrupting their sleep patterns.[1] More than half of owners reach for their smartphone within a quarter of an hour of waking.


Image: Mobile Phone

In just nine years since the launch of the first full touchscreen smartphone, it looks set to become the most successful consumer electronics device of all time. Globally, it’s predicted that about 1.5 billion smartphones will go on sale in 2016 – that’s more than all PCs, tablets, televisions and games consoles put together.[2]

With growth this fast, ethics can get left behind. The electronics industry is notorious for low wages, excessive overtime, exploitation of migrant and student workers, and crucially, a lack of the ‘freedom of association’ workers need to be able to improve their conditions. There are also multiple issues around mining for materials used; hazardous chemicals leading to deadly health problems and pollution; electronic waste and energy use. The speed at which the phone market has grown, and the culture of frequent upgrades, just increases the strain.



Who makes mobiles?

Samsung and Apple dominate the smartphone market, accounting for over three fifths (62%) of owners. Apple is more popular with 16-24 year olds and the higher income bracket whilst Samsung owners tend to be less well-off and aged 35-54.

Microsoft bought Nokia’s mobile business in April 2014, but rebranded the smartphones as Microsoft Lumia.

The iconic Nokia brand is still used by Microsoft on Nokia feature phones. However, in May 2016, Microsoft announced the sale of the Nokia-branded feature phones to a division of the controversial electronics manufacturer Foxconn, and HMD global, a new company in Finland made up of veteran Nokia staff. We will update the Nokia brand with its new ownership once the phones become available.

The Moto brand has now been bought by the computer manufacturer Lenovo, giving it a foothold in the market. Even Amazon experimented with its own smartphone, but it disappeared soon after appearing in 2014.



Smartphone or feature phone?

Feature phones are a cheaper alternative to smartphones and have more limited capabilities. Feature phones typically provide voice calling and text messaging functions, in addition to basic multimedia and internet capabilities. Because they have less functions, they consume less energy.

Smartphones let you do a lot more than feature phones. They have full internet access, so are great for checking the news or your emails and even watching movies while you’re out and about. You can download ‘apps’ (computer programs) for all sorts of things like booking train tickets, internet banking, and social media. Basically everything you could do on a home computer or laptop, but more mobile. But the more a phone does, the more energy it consumes, hence the ongoing need to regularly recharge your smartphone battery.

If all you really want from your mobile is a cheap phone to make calls, send texts and have a long-lasting battery, a feature phone is for you. They’re really easy to use and don’t come with loads of extra features that you might be unlikely to use. Alcatel, Doro, Samsung and Nokia all make feature phones.



What’s in a phone?

A smartphone is about 40% metals, 40% plastics and 20% ceramics and resin. As well as the ‘conflict minerals’ tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold, phones also contain: silver, nickel and lead in the circuit board; cobalt, zinc and copper in the battery; as well as arsenic, chromium and selenium, all of which can leak during production and disposal. Unless recycled metals are used, they must all be mined, and this can mean communities are displaced, biodiversity destroyed, and vast amounts of water and fossil fuels are used for processing and extraction.

What’s more, in January 2016, Amnesty has accused Apple, Samsung and Sony, and 13 other companies, of failing to do basic checks to ensure cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries is not mined by children in the Congo.[3] See our feature on Cobalt Mining for more information. 

We have rated all the phone companies for their policies on conflict minerals. See below.

Score table highlights

Only Fairphone got a best Ethical Consumer rating for its supply chain management, having demonstrated a core commitment to improving workers’ rights. Just three companies (Apple, ZTE and Microsoft) got a middle rating. The rest got a ‘worst’ rating. Some companies didn’t even publish a supply chain policy for workers’ rights (Archos, Doro, TCL and Huawei).

Of those who had a policy, key clauses on child labour and/or working hours were inadequate. Two companies did not specify a minimum age for workers (LG and HTC), and one company (ZTE) did not specify an upper limit to working hours. Ethical Consumer expected a company to clearly state that a maximum working week constitutes 48 hours plus 12 hours’ overtime. Google and Amazon, along with five companies whose supply chain policy was based on the industry-led Electronics Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC) Code of Conduct (Acer, Lenovo, Sony, BlackBerry and Samsung), only limited the working week to 60 hours, rather than 48 hours before overtime.


Phones and conflict minerals

The mobile phone market has faced quite a lot of scrutiny from civil society over its use of conflict minerals. Fairphone has tried to drive change in this respect with its mission to make a phone without including human rights abuses. Fairphone is therefore involved in several multi-stakeholder initiatives which aim to develop and support the trade of conflict-free minerals.

Fairphone’s website provides a breakdown of each of the conflict minerals and the work it has done to support ‘conflict-free’ mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and to source conflict-free minerals.

As US publicly-listed companies, six of the big brands in this market have to submit reports under the Dodd-Frank Act and subsequently score well in our ratings. Although Lenovo, Acer and LG don’t have to report, they still have a conflict minerals policy which commits them to continue sourcing from the DRC and they have well-developed policies covering ‘due diligence’ and releasing lists of their smelters and/or refiners (SORs).

Disappointingly the mobile phone market also contains companies which have failed to even acknowledge or report on the issue: Doro, Archos and TCL.

Samsung also failed to score highly because it does not explicitly state that it will continue to support trade in the DRC.


Conflict minerals ratings:

Table: conflict minerals table

See our feature on conflict minerals for more information. 



Toxic chemicals

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.[4]

Toxic chemicals policy ratings

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.

Best toxics rating
– Apple, BlackBerry, 

Middle toxics rating – Acer, Fairphone, Samsung, LG, Huawei

Worst toxics rating – Microsoft had inadequate policies. Alcatel,  Archos, Doro, Google, HTC,  ZTE provided no information.


Greener models

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.

Out of all the products covered in these guides, the mobile phone sector has been the most progressive in removing these chemicals from products. All the phones of the two market leaders – Samsung and Apple – are PVC, BFR and phthalate-free.


PVC, BFR and phthalate free

All Samsungs, all Apple iPhones, all BlackBerrys, all LG, all Sony phones. Plus Huawei’s Mate S & Mate 8 models.



Stop your smartphone being tracked

Companies, governments and criminal hackers can tap into smartphones to access personal data, track movements and make assumptions based on behaviour, for marketing purposes, for example.

To avoid it:

  • Disable location tracking on your phone in Location Services.
  • Install an anti-tracking app like Untrackered, PrivacyFix, WhisperMonitor or PryFi.
  • Turn off wifi, bluetooth and GPS.
  • Don’t allow apps to access personal data or locations.

As long as your phone is connected to the network, your network operator is able to triangulate your location from your use of mobile phone masts. You can only avoid this by switching your phone off or switching it to flight mode.

For more information, see

Mobiles and health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that “The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans”, and advises reducing exposure levels by:

  • Where possible keeping the phone away from your body by texting and using it hands-free (or on speaker phone) rather than against your head.
  • Limiting the number and length of calls.
  • Using the phone in areas of good reception rather than poor so the phone can transmit at reduced power.

The NHS also says there is uncertainty about the potential for risks from long-term use over decades, but if there are risks, children may be more vulnerable.

More information from:

World Health Organisation 







Company profile

Fujitsu is a Japanese company. Its policy ratings are largely poor, but on the positive side, it seems to have quite impressive targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, Greenpeace evaluated global IT companies on their clean energy investment, energy efficiency and political advocacy. Fujitsu was in 4th position (out of 21 companies). In terms of goals for future carbon savings, it was the leading company.

Fujitsu has given £72,500 to UK political candidates since 2014, with the bulk going to the Labour Party. It gave $9,036 to US political candidates in 2016, 95% of which went to the Democrats, and $5,351 of which went to Bernie Saunders. However, somewhat contradictorily, it is also a member of two free-trade lobby groups, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Economic Forum.

The company is a supplier to many military and intelligence organisations, and is one of the top two ICT suppliers to the UK Ministry of Defence.[6]

On finance Fujitsu does not do well. It got our worst rating for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies, and its CEO received the equivalent of £8.5 million in 2015.[7]

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See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.  

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2 Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2016, Deloitte
4 Short Circuit report, Gaia Foundation, 2013.
6 Fujitsu, 2016, Fujitsu in Defence and National Security



This product guide is part of a wider report into the Electronics Industry. See what else is in the report.

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