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Desktop computers

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 12 desktop computer brands.

We also look at conflict minerals, toxic chemicals and how to recycle PCs and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping 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 buying a desktop computer:

  • Is it second-hand or refurbished? Because of the significant carbon footprint of making a computer, its life should ideally be extended for as long as possible. If you can’t repair an old machine you can extend the life of another by buying second-hand or refurbished. See our guide to buying second-hand tech for more advice. 

  • Is it repairable and upgradeable? With traditional ‘tower’ desktop PCs, it is usually possible to replace all of the major internal components. This makes it easy to repair if one part fails, or upgrade if you need better performance in the future. All-in-one desktop PCs, which have the screen and computer combined in one unit (such as the Apple iMac), access to internal parts is often restricted. Look for a replaceable storage drive and RAM at a minimum.

  • Is it TCO certified? The TCO-Certified label ensures that the model has reduced environmental and social impact throughout its lifecycle, from manufacture to disposal. Use the online product finder to find out if a PC model has the TCO-Certified label.

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What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a desktop computer:

  • Does the brand score badly for its toxics policy? All electronics contain potentially dangerous toxic chemicals. We expect companies to have a policy that commits to phasing out the worst chemicals.

  • Does the brand score badly for its conflict minerals policy? Conflict minerals are associated with violence and serious human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 100) Ratings Categories

Our Analysis

We seem to be obsessed with the advancement of technology, but are we working towards a sustainable relationship with it, or are we in a society of PC gone mad?

In the following guides, we rank the biggest brands in the PC industry according to their ethical policies and performance. We also look at some lesser-known companies that are offering more sustainable alternatives.

Desktop PCs and conflict minerals

Conflict minerals have, for a long time, been defined by policymakers under the umbrella term 3TG: tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold. 

In recent years it has frequently been suggested that the trade in cobalt, of which 75% of the world’s supply is mined in DRC, is similarly linked to the conflict in the region. However, cobalt is not specified in existing conflict minerals legislation.
These five chemical elements are widely used in electronic and electrical devices including PCs and mobile phones as follows, although each has multiple other uses:

  • tantalum is commonly used for capacitors on circuit boards
  • tin in solder
  • tungsten is used in phone vibration mechanisms
  • gold is in connectors
  • cobalt is widely used in the production of batteries

The desktop computer brands in this guide were ranked for on conflict minerals usage.

Conflict Minerals Rating
Rating Best Middle Worst
Brands Acer, HP, Dell, Apple, Microsoft, Lenovo Asus MSI, Huawei

Find out more about conflict minerals and how we rate companies for their use.

Image: cobalt conflict mineral

Toxic chemicals in PCs

Among the dozens of elements and compounds used in the production of electronic devices are numerous substances known to be toxic to human health and the natural environment.

The table below shows how the brands in this guide score for their toxic chemical use and policies.

Toxic chemicals rating
Rating Best Middle Worst
Brand Apple, Microsoft Acer, Lenovo, Dell Huawei, HP, ASUS, MSI

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are two substances often used in the plastic parts of electronic devices. Both substances are known to produce harmful by-products, such as highly toxic and carcinogenic dioxins, which can be released at various stages of a product’s lifecycle.

The danger becomes acute after the disposal of a device, when plastics are often burned in incinerators or by workers in informal recycling operations, releasing dioxins directly into the air. This is one of the reasons why e-waste is such a huge problem.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals often used as a softener in PVC. Over time, they leak out of plastic materials into the surrounding environment and have been linked to a wide range of health problems affecting the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems.

In the European Union, the RoHS Directive restricts the use of toxic substances in electronics, including a number of BFRs and, as of 2019, four phthalates. However, different companies use different definitions and acceptable thresholds more measuring toxics, and focusing solely on the phasing out of known chemicals risks rewarding companies that just swap one toxic for a lesser known but no less dangerous one.

For example, Apple, receives our best rating in this category. Although it openly declares that trace levels of toxic chemicals remain in certain products, it publicly discloses its thresholds for acceptable concentrations.

Huawei, on the other hand, simply makes a broad claim to have “banned the use of six harmful substances in our mobile phones, tablets, and wearables”. While this may sound superficially impressive, it says nothing about the presence of toxics in, say, Huawei’s charging cables, a key use of BFRs. Huawei received our worst rating.

Are there any regulations on toxic chemicals?

TCO Certified is a sustainability label for IT products, which takes into account a broad range of social and environmental factors in the lifecycle of a product.

For a product to be awarded the TCO-Certified label, it must meet numerous criteria relating to both the design and manufacture including criteria on worker’s rights, conflict minerals, hazardous chemicals, user health and safety, durability, and recyclability.

Of the companies featured in this guide, Lenovo, HP, Acer and Dell offered TCO-Certified PC models.

On our score table, TCO-Certified products are awarded a Product Sustainability positive mark. To find out if a specific model has the label, we recommend using the Product Finder on the TCO Certified website.

Working conditions and workers’ rights in the tech industry

We looked at the supply chain and workers' rights in the tech industry, and unfortunately it's a low scoring area for most companies making desktop PCs.

Supply Chain Management Rating
Rating Best Middle Worst
Brand Dell Apple, Acer, Lenovo , HP, Microsoft ASUS, Huawei, MSI

Inadequate working conditions are a persistent issue in the IT supply chain.

Conditions in Chinese electronics factories have frequently made headlines for low wages, excessive working hours, forced overtime and insufficient breaks, and even the limited labour laws that do exist are frequently violated. Read our feature on workers rights and technology in order to see how this manifests.

Furthermore, find out why overall, only one of the PC brands we rated in this guide met the criteria for our best rating for Supply Chain Management.

The carbon cost of desktops

The contribution of IT and the electronics sector to climate change is a growing problem, with studies suggesting that the production and use of electronic devices will account for 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, which equates to one half of today’s global transport sector.

We rated the companies making desktop PCs for their carbon emissions reporting.

Like the gadgets themselves, the issue is highly complex, with emissions occurring throughout the lifecycle of a product: resource extraction, multiple stages of manufacture, transportation, use and disposal all contribute significantly to the climate impact of a device.

The production stage is often the most significant – for smartphones, this has been estimated to account for 75% of emissions. The complexity of the product means it requires large amounts of energy to manufacture, although the quantities are difficult to measure as a myriad of materials and components need to be processed and assembled by different companies along a huge supply chain 

Broadening the scope of reporting

The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol defines a set of standards to assist companies with measuring and tracking their climate impact in real terms by separating emissions sources into three categories known as Scopes.

Scope 1 covers direct emissions produced by a company’s own facilities, while scope 2 accounts for the emissions caused by electricity use of the company.*Reported limited data defined as Scope 3 such as employee travel but did not include supply chain or product-use emissions.

Scope 3 takes into account “all other indirect emissions”, including those produced in the supply chain, product use and disposal as well as other activities such as business travel.

Although much more difficult to measure, Scope 3 emissions generally account for the largest share of a company’s carbon footprint. This is particularly true for electronics manufacturers, where so much energy use occurs outside of each company’s direct control.

Despite this, we found that not all companies we assessed measured and reported on scope 3 emissions. The level of reporting by each company is shown in the table below.

Carbon Emissions Reporting
Reporting Scopes 1 and 2 Scopes 1,2 and a substantial proportion of 3
Brands ASUS, MSI Lenovo, Dell, HP, Apple, Acer, Microsoft, Huawei

Short lifecycles are a driver for climate change

Perhaps the most effective way to limit the climate impact of your gadgets is by extending their life. A 2019 EU report compared the total emissions of ‘use’ and ‘non-use’ phases of their lifecycles. For notebooks, ‘non-use phases’ account for between 40% and 64% of the total Global Warming Potential (GWP), while the same figure for smartphones was between 51% and 92%.

As electricity supplies in some countries move gradually towards renewables, this proportion becomes even greater, particularly as the vast majority of electronics manufacturing takes place in China and other East Asian countries, where coal and other fossil fuels account for the majority of electricity supply.

This means that improvements in energy-efficient design rarely compensate for the impact of production when a device is replaced with a new one, with calculations suggesting that a smartphone may be used for between 25 and 232 years before it becomes environmentally beneficial to replace!

For consumers, this is yet another good reason to repair devices wherever possible, or else to buy second-hand or refurbished products.

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How much energy do desktop PCs use?

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.

Can you use less energy when using a desktop PC?

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. 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.

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.

Are there any low energy desktop computers?

According to Sust-it, Apple Mac and Dell Optiplex desktops are the most energy efficient desktops on the market when ranked by annual power consumption.

Tax avoidance in the tech industry

Ethical Consumer rated companies on the likely use of tax avoidance strategies based on whether they listed subsidiaries in countries or regions on our list of known tax havens.

Companies with two or more subsidiaries considered to be high-risk within these areas were given our worst rating, unless they published country-by-country financial information, a policy statement or narrative explanation that could explain a different purpose for these subsidiaries.

Tax Avoidance Rating
Rating Best Middle Worst
Brands N/A N/A ASUS, MSI, Acer, Lenovo, HP, Dell, Microsoft, Apple, Huawei

Shockingly, every PC brand rated in this guide received our worst rating for the likely use of tax avoidance.

Reuse, repair, recycle

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.

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 Crucial how much memory your computer can take. You may also be able to upgrade from an old and unsupported operating system with ChromeOS Flex.

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. 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.

Donate a PC is a free ‘matchmaking’ service for individuals and organisations to donate unneeded 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.

Householders can:

• 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 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

More about buying second hand technology.

The Story of Electronics

The Story of Electronics, released in November 2011, explores the high-tech revolution’s collateral damage—25 million tons of e-waste and counting, poisoned workers and a public left holding the bill. Host Annie Leonard takes viewers from the mines and factories where our gadgets begin to the horrific backyard recycling shops in China where many end up. The film concludes with a call for a green ‘race to the top’ where designers compete to make long-lasting, toxic-free products that are fully and easily recyclable.

Company behind the brand

Lenovo is headquartered in Beijing and incorporated in Hong Kong. Although the company was founded as Legend Holdings in 1984, the Lenovo brand was only established in 2004 and has since grown to dominate the global personal computing market. Lenovo has the world’s largest laptop market share at almost 25% in 2022. The last twenty years have seen the Chinese giant expand to acquire Motorola mobile phones, Fujitsu computers and IBM’s PC and server businesses.

Lenovo was accused by Chinese nationalists in 2021 of having forgotten its roots as a state-owned enterprise, suggesting that its global successes have brewed some domestic resentment.

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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