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Ethical Broadband

Ethical and environmental records of 24 broadband providers.

We look at their green claims, tax avoidance, energy use, digital inequality, give our Best Buy recommendations and shine a spotlight on Hyperoptic.

About 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when choosing broadband:

  • What is the business model? We recommend companies which are not-for-profit, cooperative, or certified B-Corporation.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when choosing broadband:

  • Is the company a likely tax avoider? Three of the ‘big four’ providers, Virgin, BT, and Sky, as well as Shell, Three, Vodafone and KKR (Hyperoptic) all look suspect.

  • Is the company linked to fossil fuel extraction? Shell broadband, Three and Community Fibre all have links to the fossil fuel industry through their ownership.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

There was a time when pretty much all internet connections had to use a BT phoneline. Then Virgin came along and built its own network to rival BT. Now, there are places where six or seven lines may have been laid by different companies in the same street. Big investors have backed various ‘alt-net’ companies, in the hope they’ll become the next big name in broadband infrastructure.

But the reality may be that many of the smaller companies go bust or get bought out. Two new fibre companies are included in our updated scoretable, Hyperoptic and Community Fibre. Hyperoptic is backed by KKR, who own Upfield, the company behind Flora margarine, but also invest in pharmaceuticals and have even backed a tear gas producer.

Community Fibre is 32% controlled by DTCP, the investment arm of Deutsche Telekom, which is the largest telecommunications provider in Europe, and 32% by Warburg Pincus, an American investment company that boasts of its 30+ years’ experience in the fossil fuel industry, among other things.

Also new on the scoretable are Shell, another unexpected connection to fossil fuels, and Onestream, a much smaller company which is not attempting to win the infrastructure race and doesn’t have big name backing.

Big profits and local co-ops

Even in the two months prior to publishing this guide, changes were afoot.

Ovo told us it wouldn’t fill in our questionnaire as it was selling SSE broadband (which it only bought from the energy company SSE in 2020), to TalkTalk. VMED O2, the new joint venture between Virgin Media and O2, was interested in buying TalkTalk, and Vodafone and Three were thinking about merging too... None of this has happened, at least not yet.

There may be about to be a ‘wave of consolidation’ washing through the telecoms sector, but these changes are not just about broadband. Many of the companies offer bundles including mobile phone networks and pay-TV too.

It can seem like the end consumer is just a pawn in a sprawling game of profit-chasing, but there are still alternative options out there. While there might be a ‘big four’ (Virgin, BT, Sky and TalkTalk) in this market, like many others we cover, there are actually over 150 broadband providers in the UK, and you may find there is a local not-for-profit option in your area, especially if you live rurally.

Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is one example. It covers many villages around the Yorkshire Dales/North Pennines area, and proudly states that it “can never be bought by a commercial operator and its profits can only be distributed to the community or used to expand the network.” B4RN has inspired other communities to try to replicate their model, and several use similar names, such as Broadband for Rural South (B4RS). We haven’t included these on our scoretable, but two of our Best Buys are not-for-profit and available across the UK.

Standard prices vary depending on options available in your location, how fast you need it to be - which relates to how many people will be using it and for what, and the length of contract, but you’re looking at around £20-30 a month in most cases.

As well as traditional home broadband, our table also includes a few providers of mobile broadband, for homes that are not well-served by physical networks, or for better access to broadband while travelling: Vodafone, EE, Virgin and Three / Smarty. These devices, be they mobile routers, dongles, 12volt devices or SIM cards, may be preloaded with data bundles, or pay-as-you-go.

Cartoon of hole in ground and lots of workmen with cables trying to get in or out
Image (c) Mike Bryson for Ethical Consumer

Which brands are owned by another company?

Brand name Owned by
1p broadband Utility Warehouse
EE BT
John Lewis BT (service from Plusnet which is owned by BT)
NOW Sky
Your Co-op (or Phone Co-op, old name) Midcounties Co-operative (branded as Your Co-op)
Plusnet BT
Smarty (mobile broadband) Three
SSE TalkTalk

How green are broadband providers?

Broadband provision has a carbon cost. We looked at the carbon claims to see how ethical the broadband providers are.

We applied our carbon rating to broadband companies for the first time in this update, looking at action to reduce emissions, reduction targets and reporting. Of the ‘big four’ broadband providers, BT, Sky and Virgin scored best – however, despite having taken action to reduce their carbon emissions, none had made much of a dent.

About 3% of Sky’s fleet of vehicles appeared to be electric, and it talked about generating on-site renewable energy, but this only made up 2.5% of its electricity use in 2020. Electric vans made up just over 1% of BT’s 33,000 vehicle fleet, but like other companies it cited lack of charging infrastructure as a barrier. It had reduced its global energy usage by less than 5% from 2020 to 2021, although, if it were able to keep that going it would become significant. Virgin discussed actions but without figures.

The provider Three is part of the CK Hutchison group, which was also involved in coal-fired power generation so got a worst carbon rating. It did have a strategy to phase coal out globally by 2035, but at least some of this was transitioning to gas, rather than non-fossil fuels.

None of the newer entrants to the market (Community Fibre, Hyperoptic and Onestream) were discussing sustainability on their consumer websites.

Several companies were counting using renewable energy as an emissions reduction, even though they were largely just buying certificates for renewable energy that was already being generated anyway.

One example was TalkTalk which responded to our questionnaire saying it had reduced energy usage by 15% over the last 3 years, but stated on its Environment web page that it had "lowered our carbon footprint by 80% in 5 years". When questioned the company did send more information by email stating: "We have reduced absolute emissions between FY18 and FY22. So the total figures went from a scope 1 and 2 emissions of 21,727 tco2e down to 3,005 tco2e – 85% down in total", however this calculation included switching to a renewable energy provider. As we know from our Energy guide, switching to a renewable tariff which just relies on certificates, doesn't mean a reduction in CO2.

Energy use and ethical broadband

Our online energy use in perspective

Estimates of the carbon emissions of the internet differ wildly, partly because much of the important data is kept secret by tech companies, and partly because everything is changing so rapidly that when an estimate is published it is already out of date – efficiency is doubling every two years or so. One of the world experts, Jonathan Koomey, argues that:

“Well-intentioned research often overestimates IT’s electricity use and climate impacts, sometimes by orders of magnitude.”

Mike Berners Lee (a carbon footprinting expert but not specifically on IT), in his book ‘How Bad are Bananas?’ gives an estimate of a single Google search producing about 0.5 g CO2e. It is generally agreed, however, that the most data intensive activity is streaming video: a report from 2019 found that around 60% of internet data flow comes from it. We previously reported our own estimate of video calls (which use a similar amount of data to streaming) to be 1-6 g of CO2e per hour. UK per capita carbon emissions are around 30,000 g of CO2e a day. So the important headline is internet use is not going to be a major part of your carbon footprint.

Energy usage of different devices

The internet overall is still a source of sufficient emissions that it matters what is powering it and that it is as efficient as possible. Data centres process and store the data we access. One estimate is that they accounted for approximately 1% of global electricity usage in 2018, and some predict that this figure is likely to increase dramatically in the future, although this is disputed.

Current efficiency improvements, although impressive, are not keeping up with the growth in demand for data, and there’s plenty more that data centres could do.

But in terms of individual action, a much bigger issue than what you do on the internet is what you do it on.

A smartphone uses less energy than a laptop, which uses about five times less than a desktop computer. And as covered in our guides to these devices, by far the biggest portion of the emissions come from manufacturing the actual devices. So while cutting down the time devices are on is worth it, refraining from buying new devices may be the most effective action we can take to cut the carbon related to our internet use.

Our article on buying second hand and refurbished tech devices has more info on how to do this.

Spotlight on streaming pornography

Quite amazingly, pornography accounts for almost a third of all streaming on the Internet.

Researchers at Durham University found that one in eight titles on the UK’s most popular pornography websites contained and described violence against women and girls. Not that former senior Conservative MP, Neil Parish, had that on his mind when he conspicuously streamed pornography in the chamber, surrounded by colleagues, in the House of Commons.

Environmental impact of routers

Broadband routers don’t usually spring to mind when thinking of electrical products, but every broadband connection comes with one. We looked for the toxics policies of companies providing own-brand routers and disappointingly didn’t find much information at all.

Plastics are commonly mixed with additives, such as flame retardants, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and phthalates, to achieve particular properties, e.g. for moulding or enhancing durability. Some of these additives, such as phthalates, are now considered as substances of very high concern according to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). When these substances degrade into the environment, they can enter the systems of plants, animals, marine life and eventually the food system.

Most companies supply own-brand routers, but we found no mention of policies on harmful and toxic substances used in their manufacture. Even those that do not manufacture own-brand equipment still supply routers. None of them mention policies on toxic substances either.

Router with cables

How to recycle or refurbish unwanted routers

Switching suppliers or upgrading usually means getting a new router sent your way. A recent survey by Uswitch found that 42% of UK households have an old router in storage, with one in seven households holding on to two or more old routers. In 2021, there were 28.1 million households in the UK, so that’s a whopping 11,802,000 routers gathering dust.

You can find out where to take your old router and other electricals on the Recycle Your Electricals website in the UK.

Many companies, including all the ‘big four’, now only loan routers, so they need to be returned when you change your contract. They may recycle them, and many now actually refurbish them for new customers.

Routers and toxic waste

Recycling as much as possible is surely a good thing, but not great if this means keeping toxic substances in circulation. As demand for a circular economy that reuses materials has grown, it has shed a new light on the problem of plastic additives, which have even prevented plastic recycling in some cases.

There isn’t necessarily a straightforward solution for existing used equipment, but it’s clearly important to eliminate toxics going forward if we want to reuse materials.

Routers and TCO Certification

The TCO Certification offers an independent certification scheme for electronics which means that equipment has been checked against an accepted chemicals list, as well as met a level of labour standards. The TCO stresses that, rather than replacing problem chemicals with others that are also questionable, we need to shift to researched substances which are considered safe.

Although the TCO lists certified laptops and mobile phones, amongst other equipment, there are unfortunately no TCO-certified routers yet. This highlights the fact that broadband routers are a neglected area in electronics, despite companies supplying millions of customers with equipment.

Mobile phone resting on a laptop

Ethical broadband providers and tax avoidance

Most companies scored a worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

Shell was criticised in the Observer for not paying any corporation tax between 2018 and 2020, whilst claiming tax reliefs of nearly £400 million. During this period, it paid its shareholders over £44 billion.

Midcounties Co-operative (Your Co-op) got a best rating as it had the Fair Tax mark, meaning it has been independently verified as paying the right amount of corporation tax.

John Lewis also got a best rating as, although it has some subsidiaries located in jurisdictions we consider to be tax havens, an explanation is provided for the choice of locations, such as having a store located there.

SSE also has the Fair Tax mark but was recently bought by TalkTalk, which has a couple of companies in suspect locations. However, it was not marked down as these subsidiaries are under liquidation.

Green ISP, GreenNet, Telecom Plus Plc (Utility Warehouse), and Zen were not marked down as they don’t have any subsidiaries in tax havens and only operate in the UK.

How do broadband suppliers rate for supply chain management?

If a company supplies own-brand equipment, we look for details on how it manages workers’ rights in its supply chains. Green ISP, GreenNet and Zen Internet use third-party routers so were not rated.

TalkTalk appeared to have been pushed by Modern Slavery legislation to take new steps. It had set up a steering committee which decided it should extend its monitoring of suppliers, and we look forward to seeing progress on this.

The new providers Community Fibre and Onestream have turnovers under £36 million, so are not legally required to produce a Modern Slavery statement – and had no publicly available information on this supply chain risk.

But our rating doesn’t just look at forced labour. It includes a wider range of workers’ rights such as whether workers can easily raise concerns, and to what extent complex supply chains are audited.

Only four companies on our table which were rated for supply chain did enough to get beyond a worst rating – with middle ratings going to BT, Vodafone and John Lewis, and best to Midcounties Cooperative (Your Co-op).

Broadband providers and conflict minerals

Most companies had no information on conflict minerals which may be used in equipment including 3TG: tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold.

These minerals are used in a variety of electronic devices. A large percentage of these minerals are sourced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has seen low-scale conflict for decades, leading to the term 'conflict minerals'.

BT and Sky got middle ratings, and Vodafone, which had surprisingly good reporting on this issue compared to other companies in this market, got best.

Our article on conflict minerals and technology has more information about the environmental and human costs associated with mining and use of these minerals.

Covid-19 and internet access

The Covid-19 lockdowns sharply exposed and increased the digital divide. One in five children in the UK who were home schooled when schools were closed had no access to a suitable device for online learning. Around 1.5 million households had no access to the internet (although nearly all homes with school age children did). Some people were choosing between eating and mobile data.

One study in the US found that not having internet access was associated with higher Covid deaths, although not having access was an indirect measure of other factors such as low income, lack of health insurance, overcrowded housing and other social disadvantages.

One of the researchers suggested that the lack of internet access could mean people weren’t accessing high-quality information about the virus. At the same time, Facebook, with just under three billion users globally and over 55 million users in the UK, was highlighted as being the biggest source of misinformation about Covid by the Journalism and Pandemic project.

The internet, digital inequality and material inequality

Having an internet connection is becoming essential in order to fully participate as a citizen. Social infrastructure is increasingly online, including health services, education, banking, public services and employment opportunities.

But reliable access to the internet is linked to income, and income is related to inequalities around socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, age, not being neurotypical, in insecure employment, being a carer, a refugee, asylum seeker or having a chronic illness.

According to the Digital Poverty Alliance, over two million people in the UK are behind on their broadband bills. In 2021, 36% of people reported not being online because it was too expensive, and 37% because they couldn’t get the appropriate equipment.

Cheaper broadband deals for lower income households

Some of the companies we rated had social tariffs for lower income households. According to Uswitch, two out of three financially vulnerable households weren’t aware that companies sometimes offer cheaper deals depending on financial circumstances.

TalkTalk has a scheme for Jobseekers connected to a Jobcentre Plus to have free broadband for six months, while London provider Community Fibre has set up free full-fibre broadband to over 300 community centres and libraries across London, with more planned. (NB nearly all public libraries in the UK provide free internet access, including Wi-Fi. All local authorities have a legal duty to provide a public library service so look for your local branch.)

Community Fibre, BT, and Virgin Media have an ‘essential’ social tariff at nearly half the usual price (£12.50-£15 per month). Hyperoptic have a ‘fair fibre’ tariff starting from £15 per month. For Sky and NOW, you need to be an existing customer before you can switch to their ‘basics’ tariff (£20 per month). Different companies have different eligibility criteria, so check before you switch.

But digital inclusion isn’t only about access. As well as being able to get online and having the right equipment, you then need to have the digital skills to navigate the web, and for online services to be accessible for your needs.

According to NHS Digital, 11.3 million people in the UK lack the skills needed to navigate the internet and 4.8 million never go online. Age UK figures showed that 42% of over-75-year-olds in England were still digitally excluded in 2021 and were not using the internet at all.

Digital skills support

Citizens Online have a freephone Digital Skills Helpline for people who need help with digital skills, as well as guidance for organisations: www.citizensonline.org.uk

The UK Government have a Skills for Life initiative where you can take a variety of courses in digital skills for free with a time commitment of 16 weeks. These courses are more employment focused: www.gov.uk/guidance/find-a-skills-bootcamp

Accenture also offer free digital skills courses with a time commitment of around two weeks:
www.futurelearn.com/courses/digital-skills-for-work-and-life

For those on benefits, free2learn offer a free digital skills course focused on the workplace, with a qualification at the end: free2learn.org.uk/digital-skills

Company behind the brand

Hyperoptic is also based in London but has built infrastructure serving over 60 towns and cities across the UK. In 2019, the global investment firm KKR acquired a majority stake in the company.

KKR lost marks for animal testing due to its investments in pharmaceutical companies. KKR owns one of the largest pharmacies in the US, PharMerica, which was alleged to have taken incentives to switch the medications prescribed by patients’ physicians to those sold by a particular company.

KKR acquired PharMerica in 2017, and the following year PharMerica succeeded in getting the legal case against it dismissed, but this was partially reversed in 2020 and, after 14 years of litigation, the company paid to settle the case in 2022.

Want more information?

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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