Desktop computers

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 18 desktop computer brands.

We also look at conflict minerals, toxic chemicals, low energy and green models and give our recommended buys.

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.

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. Re-using a computer can save up to 20% more energy than recycling it.

  • Is it TCO certified? This means it has minimal environmental impacts throughout its lifecycle, from manufacture to disposal [marked E on the score table].

Best Buys

There were no brands awarded Best Buy status in this guide.

Recommended buys

VeryPC, especially its Broadleaf range, which is PVC and BFR-free, are best. VeryPC is a small manufacturer based in Sheffield.

Apple scores best for its conflict minerals and toxic chemicals policies and middle for Supply Chain Management, plus all its desktops are PVC, BFR and phthalate free.

But if you want to steer clear of Apple for its tax avoidance, Lenovo’s and Acer's TCO certified models are a good option (go to the TCO product database). Lenovo and Acer get our best rating for conflict minerals and a middle rating for toxic chemicals.

(ASUS scores highly but is not recommended because it scores worst for conflict minerals and toxic chemicals.)

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a desktop computer:

  • Does it contain toxic chemical? Three chemicals are often used in electronics and have been highlighted by Greenpeace as the most hazardous: brominated flame retardants (BFRs), PVC and phthalates. Toxic chemical free models are marked with an [S] on the score table.

Companies to avoid

Market leader HP was the only company that scored best for managing workers’ rights issues throughout its supply chain but it was still the target of a boycott because of its involvement in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

  • HP

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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

VeryPC Broadleaf desktop computers [S]

Company Profile: Very Innovative Group Ltd
11

VeryPC desktop computers

Company Profile: Very Innovative Group Ltd
10.5

ASUS A6421 all in one [E]

Company Profile: ASUSTeK Computer Inc
9.5

ASUS desktop computers

Company Profile: ASUSTeK Computer Inc
8.5

Acer Veriton M200-H110 and Veriton Z4640G [E]

Company Profile: Acer Inc.
8.5

Apple Mac/iMac [S]

Company Profile: Apple Inc
8

HP desktop computers [E]

Company Profile: HP Inc
8

MSI Cubi 2 Plus vPro mini desktop [E]

Company Profile: Micro-Star International Co., Ltd.
8

ACER desktop computers

Company Profile: Acer Inc.
7.5

Packard Bell desktop comupters

Company Profile: Acer Inc.
7.5

HP desktop computers

Company Profile: HP Inc
7

MSI desktop computers

Company Profile: Micro-Star International Co., Ltd.
7

Lenovo TCO desktops [E]

Company Profile: Lenovo Group Limited
6.5

Dell Optiplex desktop computers [E]

Company Profile: Dell Inc
6

Dell Precision [S]

Company Profile: Dell Inc
5.5

Lenovo desktop computers

Company Profile: Lenovo Group Limited
5.5

Dell desktops

Company Profile: Dell Inc
5

Fujitsu desktop computers

Company Profile: Fujitsu Ltd
4.5

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

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’.

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 iMac starts at £1,049 from the Apple Store).

Score table highlights

  • Most notably, nearly all of the desktop companies, not just Apple, scored a worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies. Only VeryPC got a best rating in this category.
  • Only three companies get a worst rating for environmental reporting – Apple, MSI and Acer – as they had fairly comprehensive reports but failed to present at least two future targets for reducing their environmental impact.
  • Paradoxically, on another environmental issue, Apple was the only laptop company to score best for its toxic chemicals policies. All its products are also free of PVC, BFRs and phthalates and so it gets a positive Product Sustainability score indicated by a [S].
  • Market leader HP is the only company that scores best for managing workers’ rights issues throughout its supply chain but, despite splitting in two, it is still connected to a boycott of Israel.
  • None of the desktop companies is rated in any of our three Animal Rights categories.
Image: desktop computer

Desktops 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 five 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:

Best - Dell, Apple, HP, Acer, Lenovo

Middle - none

Worst - MSI, Fujitsu, ASUSTek, VeryPC

Read more about conflict minerals.

Climate footprint

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 in his book How Bad are Bananas.

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. That’s 720kg of greenhouse gases.

Using the computer is a less significant factor than its manufacture. 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. The discrepancy is due, says Mike Berners-Lee, to the fact that the footprint of some of the complex processes has been missed out. 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.

Energy 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.

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. 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.

Low energy desktop computers

According to VeryPC, the current typical desktop PC on the market consumes an average of around 115 watts. VeryPC 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.

VeryPC’s BroadLeaf PCs are BFR and PVC free. 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.

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 are used primarily in the plastic components, like the casings, 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.[5] 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.

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, VeryPC

Worst toxics rating – ASUS, Fujitsu,  MSI,

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.

PVC, BFR and phthalate free: All Apple MacBooks

PVC and BFR free: Dell Precision, Very PC Broadleaf

TCO Certification

‘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.

Six companies had TCO certified models - Dell Optiplex, Acer, ASUS, HP, Lenovo and MSI.

On the score table we have given TCO Certified models a Product Sustainability plus point, highlighted by a [E] next to the brand name. To find the model numbers, go to the TCO product database.

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.(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.

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.

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 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.

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.

The role of computers in our society - good or bad?

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, 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 focused 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.

Cultural pessimism?

“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.

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”.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 2011 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.(2)

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 2010 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.

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, 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.

Shifting power

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 in 2009 we also discovered that: “Half of young people claim they are happiest online”.

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.

Company behind the brand

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.

In September 2016 Ethical Consumer viewed Fujitsu's website, and downloaded a document called "Fujitsu in Defence and National Security". 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. On finance Fujitsu does not do well. It got our worst rating for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

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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References

  1. The Story of Stuff. Annie Leonard. Constable 2010
  2. Jan 18th 2011 issue. Stamatakis et al