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Ethical Mobile Phones

Finding an ethical mobile phone. Ethical & environmental rankings of 20 mobile phones, Best Buys and what to avoid! Sustainable or eco-friendly phones, conflict minerals, repairability, 2nd hand options. 

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 mobile phone:

  • Is the phone second hand? It is more environmentally sustainable to buy second hand, and it cuts the risk of your money funding exploitative supply chains.

  • Is the phone modular? Modular phones are much easier to repair. This is an important sustainability feature as it extends the life of your phone.

  • Did the brand receive our best rating for conflict minerals? Minerals are often mined in dire conditions, with money raised sometimes ending up in the hands of armed groups. Strong policies on conflict minerals can increase the likelihood that the minerals in your phone were sourced responsibly.

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

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a mobile phone:

  • Did the company receive our worst rating for its supply chain management? Labour exploitation is rife in the production of electronics goods, and companies with worst supply chain ratings are likely profiting from this.

  • Did the brand receive our worst rating for toxic chemicals? Brands that scored worst ratings aren’t showing action on particularly hazardous chemicals in the electronics sector such as Brominated Flame Retardants, PVC and phthalates.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 100) Ratings Categories

Our Analysis

Finding an ethical phone or smartphone

In this guide we help you navigate all these issues to find the most eco friendly mobile phone, including thinking about repairability and second hand options.

The phone industry suffers from use of conflict minerals, human rights and workers rights abuses, privacy issues and greenwashing. As the table above shows, some major brands are worse than others. 

The market also has a murky relationship with governments, as many phone companies supply militaries, don’t contribute a fair share of tax, collect vast sets of data on individuals that governments are too slow to regulate, and maybe even share that data with those governments.

The smartphone market is competitive: 2020 saw the end of new Blackberry smartphones, and 2021 saw LG drop out, too. We added reader suggestions like Teracube, but others (like Ulephone and Marathon) weren’t included because they didn’t seem either notably popular or ethical.

Is there an environmentally friendly mobile phone?

Mike Berners Lee in his book ‘How Bad are Bananas?’ argues that mobile phones are responsible for around 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Most emissions come from manufacture: the carbon footprint of a year’s smartphone usage (based on an iPhone 11, 128GB used for 3 hours 15 minutes a day for two years) is 77% ‘embodied’ emissions from its manufacture, 22% networks and data centres, and 1% the phone’s electricity use.

Overall to make a real difference the best choice is to buy second hand and keep your phone as long as possible.

Do what companies fear the most: be satisfied with the phone you’ve already got.

Table: Embodied carbon footprint per year of a smartphone (based on iPhone 11):

If you keep it for 2 years If you keep it for 3 years If you keep it for 10 years
52.5 kg 35 kg 10.5 kg

For context, average per capita UK carbon emissions are about 30 kg a day. So your phone is not a huge portion of your footprint, but it’s not nothing.

Only a handful of brands scored a best rating under our Climate Change category: Apple, Fairphone, Motorola, and Sony.

Most scored a worst rating: Alcatel, Doro, Google Pixel, HTC, Huawei, Nokia, OnePlus, Oppo, Realme, TCL, Teracube, Xiaomi, and ZTE.

TCO Certified smartphones

TCO Certified is a global sustainability certification for IT products. Our feature on techno trash has more information.

When we last published a guide to phones, no models were TCO certified. Now Fairphone 4 5G is available as a TCO Certified option.

What are smartphones made of?

The composition of phones varies depending on the brand, but an average materials list for a smartphone is: 25% silicon, 23% plastic, 20% iron, 14%, aluminium, 7% copper, 6% lead, 2% zinc, 1% tin, 1% nickel and 0.03% barium.

Pie chart to show what a smartphone is made of. Components and percentages are in the text.
Image copyright Moonloft

How are conflict minerals used in smartphones?

Conflict minerals are often referred to under the umbrella term 3TG: tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, all of which are used to build the components of laptops and mobile phones. A large percentage of these minerals are sourced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The minerals are used in various ways:

  • Tungsten has twice the density of steel and is used as a counterweight in a spinning motor which makes your phone vibrate.
  • Tantalum helps control the electricity flow in a phone’s circuits.
  • Tin is used for many things in a phone, including in touchscreens.
  • Gold is used as a conductor, great for use in phones because it’s corrosion resistant and reliable, meaning it can keep working in a phone for years.

The following brands scored best in our Conflict Minerals rating: Fairphone, Google, Apple and Sony.

Motorola and Samsung received a middle rating. All remaining brands (67%) received a worst rating.

Our feature on conflict minerals discusses the issues involved and what the industry is doing about it.

Mobile phones and water

We all know it's not good to let a mobile phone get in contact with water, but what about the water used in its production? It has been said that to turn all those metals and other raw materials into one smartphone uses over 900 litres.

And the greenwashing award goes to …Teracube!

Teracube got off the ground through a Crowdfunder to which people who wanted an environmentally friendly phone donated. Its first phone was launched in 2020 and we were excited to include it in this guide to see if there was finally an ethical contender to Fairphone.

Sadly, Teracube scored worst ratings in every category it was rated on except Environmental Reporting, and the sole reason it received a middle rating for this was its four year warranty (most brands offer two years though Fairphone now offers five).

It’s only near the higher end of the score table because it doesn’t operate in many industries (and so didn’t get rated on as many categories as big companies).

At the time of researching and writing this guide, its website stated “Teracube smartphones are engineered using eco-friendly materials sourced with fair-trade practices” and said its phones are completely biodegradable. But no detail was found, and other webpages questioned the claims.

Since Teracube claims to be ‘eco-friendly’ we made a special effort to get in contact with it, via multiple emails and Tweets, asking for more clarity.

And it turns out its website claims were completely untrue.

Its materials aren’t sourced fair-trade, as Teracube founder Sharad Mittal confirmed: “our focus has been primarily on making smartphones last longer than other devices, thereby reducing their environmental footprint. We have yet not worked on other social issues with how electronics are made”. It also admitted that only the phone case is biodegradable, not the entire phone.

It said it will update the claims on its website. We suggested it conduct a full review of content for accuracy.

Privacy: is your smartphone ever really yours?

According to Privacy International, “You might think you own your phone – but there is data on there you can't access, you can't delete, and possibly is being silently leaked to companies you've never heard of.”

What can I do to keep my data private?

Privacy International’s website has useful guides on how to limit the amount of data you share. These include how to block data-collecting ads and crossapp tracking on your smartphone, and tutorials on how to get your data back from apps like Facebook, Uber, Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram.

Which brands are involved in facial recognition?

Google, Apple, Huawei and Samsung are major developers of AI technology, including facial recognition. Campaign organisation Big Brother Watch is running the campaign ‘Stop Facial Recognition’. It says

“Police and private companies in the UK have been quietly rolling out facial recognition surveillance cameras, taking ‘faceprints’ of millions of people – often without you knowing about it. That’s biometric data as sensitive as a fingerprint … This is an enormous expansion of the surveillance state.”

This technology is being used in the UK, and by oppressive regimes like Israel and China.

According to The Intercept news, Google provides advanced AI services to the Israeli military that it claims could enable “sentiment analysis that claims to assess the emotional content of pictures”. This type of technology can worsen the increasingly data-driven military occupation of Palestine, which one Palestinian digital rights advocate at The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement says operates to “create the panopticon feeling among Palestinians that we are being watched all the time”.

In 2021, a Huawei patent emerged which discussed “a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uyghur origin among images of pedestrians”. The software could send a “Uyghur alarm” to government authorities when its system identified members of the oppressed minority group, which could help facilitate the ongoing imprisonment of Uyghur people in forced labour camps.

Should we avoid Chinese phone companies?

China operates a mass surveillance state, silencing human rights defenders, restricting the internet, curtailing civic freedoms, and interning Uyghur Muslims. China introduced a National Intelligence Law in 2017 which requires “all organisations and citizens” to “support, assist and co-operate with national intelligence efforts” – meaning companies are legally obliged to hand data over to the government if it asks for it.

Chinese multinational Huawei says it has never been asked to hand over customer data to the government and would not do so even if required by law (but really it doesn’t seem like it would have an option). No definitive evidence of Huawei leaking data to the government has been found.

In 2019, former president Trump prohibited Huawei from doing business with any organisation operating in the US. In 2020, the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson committed to removing all Huawei components from use in the core government network by 2023. Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have some bans on Huawei. In 2021, Lithuania’s Defence Ministry said consumers should throw away Chinese phones, claiming one Xiaomi phone had built-in tools that could detect and censor terms such as “Free Tibet” or “democracy movement”.

However, given the context, some have questioned whether this is driven by xenophobia and “former President Trump’s propensities to see virtually any activity in China from Huawei’s 5G innovations to COVID-19 as nefarious threats aimed directly at the US, its allies and the entire world.”

The Tibetan Youth Congress calls for a boycott of China. However, lots of products contain Chinese components without being labelled as such, so a full boycott would be difficult to do. Read our article ‘Should we boycott “made in China?”’ for ways to take a stand on human rights abuses by the government of China.

Six people standing in a line all looking at mobile phones or tablet devices

Are mobile phones vegan?

OPPO launched a vegan smartphone in 2020, prompting the question: aren’t all smartphones vegan?!

Fairphone says chemicals derived from animal products can sometimes be found in glue used in smartphones, and unless companies go to special effort – like Oppo presumably did with its vegan-marketed model – then it’s unlikely the manufacturer even knows whether the glue is vegan.

We didn’t mark companies for this due to the shortage of information. Some just lost half marks for selling, for example, leather laptop bags.

Which smartphone operating system is more ethical, iOS or Android?

Most phones run on the Android operating system (owned by Google), unless you have an Apple product, which uses its own iOS operating system. Android and Google are owned by Alphabet Inc, which received an overall Ethiscore of 5.5. It’s been criticised for doing business with the Burmese military, it paid $118 million to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit, and develops facial recognition technology.

The 'Android privacy report' says several handsets running variants of Android were found to be submitting substantial amounts of information to the OS developer and third parties even when they were not in use. Transmission of data was said to be “well beyond” occasional communication and couldn’t be opted out of, raising a number of privacy concerns.

iOS is developed by Apple which received an overall Ethiscore of 8. Apple develops facial recognition technology. Another 2021 study examined whether iOS was any better for privacy than Android and found that neither platform was better than the other. One difference it found was that when it comes to apps for children, iOS used less advertising-related tracking than Android. But iOS was more likely to be able to access children’s location.

There’s therefore no clear winner when it comes to privacy. But based on our overall ethical ratings, we’d probably opt for iOS over Android.

Are there any alternative operating systems for mobile phones?

/e/OS is an open-source Android operating system variant, describing itself as a “deGoogled” operating system. No Google apps or services can access your personal data when using /e/OS.

Authors of an 'Android privacy report' stated “/e/OS sends no information to Google or third parties and sends essentially no information to the /e/OS developers”.

Models you can install /e/OS onto include Fairphone 3+, Teracube 2e 2021, and Google Pixel 4. See if your device is compatible by visiting the /e/OS website.

It’s not the simplest thing to install though, so you may need help (if you’re buying, the phone-seller might help.) The Android privacy report ranked LineageOS, another system, second best for privacy.

Person repairing a Fairphone mobile phone
Repairing a Fairphone

Price comparison for ethical mobile phones

Best Buy Fairphone’s latest model (Fairphone 4) is £499 and comes with a five year warranty. The Fairphone 3+ costs £399, with a two year warranty.

Although the Fairphone is a big investment, its ethics are unparalleled and the repairability of its designs means the high initial cost is more bearable in the long run because it’ll last you longer than phones that can’t be fixed. Fairphones can also be paid for in installments with a 24 month contract from our mobile phone networks Best Buy, Your Coop.

While we don’t tend to rate products in terms of functionality at Ethical Consumer, as it’s a big expenditure and the guide’s only Best Buy we wanted to at least touch on it. Some users found earlier models (notably the 1 and 2) more prone to faults. According to Which? magazine, Fairphones are rapidly improving, with the Fairphone 4 scoring significantly better than Fairphone 3+ (Which? hasn’t rated earlier models). The Guardian gave the Fairphone 4 a review of 4 out of 5 stars.

The Apple iPhone, a recommended buy, will set you back £1,099 if you pre-order the latest model (iPhone 14 Pro), and has a standard two year warranty. iPhone also sells cheaper models like the iPhone SE at £499.

Recommended buy Nokia’s models range from £74.99 to £439.

The Teracube costs about £300, but pretty much its only ethical merit is a four year warranty.

Second hand phones are of course the cheapest to buy up-front – see our article on buying second hand or refurbished phones.

Consumer actions

Buy a second hand phone

As with nearly all goods, it is better to purchase second hand than to buy new, as this does not increase demand for raw materials, nor require energy and labour for manufacture.

It could be argued that, to some extent, the second hand phone market relies upon the overconsumption of those ever-upgrading consumers in the new market. However, it is unlikely that avoiding second hand will discourage others from purchasing new phones. So, while there are perfectly good used phones available, it is advisable to purchase these if possible.

Second hand phones can be purchased in a number of places. Many brands will sell refurbished phones which come with a product guarantee. There are also a number of sites on the internet that sell second hand phones. Or you could try to acquire one from one of the many people who have an old phone stashed away in their drawer following their latest upgrade.

For more info, see our guide to buying second-hand technology.

Recycle your old phone

Your phone contains a host of precious minerals and materials so it is important that these are recycled rather than ending up in landfill. The bulk of carbon emissions are associated with the manufacture of your phone and laptop.

There are many places you can recycle or sell your phone, and our feature article has more options of how to repair, reuse, recycle or sell your old phone.

How much time do you spend on your phone each day?

In a 2021 study, The London School of Economics claims we check our phones every five minutes. 89% of smartphone interactions are initiated by users, only 11% by notifications. We spend on average four hours per day using our phones.

How to kick the phone habit and let your mind wander again

One article suggests that time historically used for daydreaming – the commute to work or standing in a queue – has been infiltrated by smartphones. We just move onto the next email, podcast or ebook.

Tips for safeguarding beneficial daydream time away from your smartphone:

  1. Change your phone background to something you could be doing instead of checking your phone (e.g. reading, spoiling your companion animal, snoozing, doing squats …)
  2. Limit your phone usage. Many phones have in-built trackers showing how long you’ve spent on your phone each day and doing what. You can also get apps that lock you out for certain periods.
  3. Delete unnecessary apps. News apps, Reddit, Instagram … you could easily wait until you’re at a computer.
  4. Leave it at home sometimes.
  5. For the radical folk – swap it for an unsmart phone.
Cartoon with three people at a table, one is looking out of the window, two are looking at their phones.
Cartoon copyright Mike Bryson

Five tips to help your phone last forever

  1. Say yes to updates. This helps phones run fast and problem-free.
  2. Be minimal. Delete unused apps, store photos on the Cloud instead of your device… you could even brave a ‘reset’ now and then!
  3. Make it gorgeous. This means a screen protector and shock-absorbing case. (The majority of people also never wash their phones – powering off and sprucing up with an alcohol wipe kills bacteria and keeps it looking fresh.)
  4. Use it less. Less wear = less tear. Must it come out on a park stroll, or could it (and you) power off for a few hours instead?
  5. Resurrect it! Brand repair services and third-party shops can breathe life back into phones that seem to have given up the ghost.
  6. Bonus tip: Don’t drop it into a toilet. Oops.

Are phones smart or sexist?

In industries like smartphones that are dominated by men it’s insightful to examine how well their products are working for women.

Too big for women’s hands

Phones have been designed to fit the average circumference of a man’s hand, but women’s hands are on average 1-2 inches smaller.

Emojis have a sexist history

Emojis used to be sexist – the (usually male) emoji designers would typically portray ‘doctor’ as a man, and ‘dancer’ a woman for example. In 2016, the platform which determines emoji codes (Unicode) realised the problem and made codes for both ‘male’ and ‘female’ versions of each emoji, e.g. one for male runner and one for female.

Predictive text is male-biased

Comparison site USwitch tested phones’ predictive text algorithms and found that Apple’s iOS system generated male-biased responses for 64% of the words it tested (whereas only 15% of words showed a male bias on Google’s Android). For example, if you typed ‘bright’, ‘logical’, ‘decisive’ or ‘assertive’,
words like ‘man’ would appear as suggested next words. Whereas if you typed ‘nurturing’, ‘supportive’, or ‘lovely’ you’d get female suggestions. Overall, male gender word suggestions were generated five times more than female gender suggestions.

Where are all the women?

Google is set to pay $118 million to settle a gender discrimination class action lawsuit that included around 15,500 women, whom it is alleged to have underpaid and locked into lower career tracks than male colleagues. Sony is facing a lawsuit for institutionalised gender-based discrimination and harassment, with accusations including women being passed by unfairly for promotion and unequal pay compared to men.

88% (16) of the brands in this guide have male CEOs. Should we be surprised that Fairphone is one of only two smartphone brands led by women? HTC also has a female CEO.

Which phone brands also make tablets?

Alcatel, HTC, Huawei, Apple, Lenovo, Nokia, Oppo, Realme, Samsung, TCL and Xiaomi also sell tablets - see our guide to ethical tablets & e-readers.

Doro, which makes smartphones that are easy-to-use for seniors, has a tablet ‘coming soon’, as do Google Pixel and OnePlus.

Company Profile

Doro, unlike most brands, didn’t lose marks under the Workers’ Rights or Tax Conduct categories. Overall however it scored pretty average. What makes Doro special is that it designs phones that are easier to use than other phones, “with seniors in mind”.

It even has a freephone service so users can ask questions about how to use it.

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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The [S] in the score table means the product gets a sustainability point for having TCO certified products, and/or modular design for repairability.