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Laptops

We investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental records of 18 laptop brands

We look at the carbon cost of laptops, toxic chemicals, e-waste, workers' rights, military links, shine a spotlight on Framework 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying a laptop:

  • Is it second hand or refurbished? Most of a laptop’s carbon footprint stems from its manufacture, so its life should ideally be extended for as long as possible.

  • Is it repairable and upgradeable? Look for a user-replaceable battery as an absolute minimum, and ideally replaceable storage drive and RAM as well. IFixit has ranked popular laptop models according to repairability. When it comes to durability, lower prices often mean poorer build quality, so forking out for a ‘business class’ laptop can save money in the long run and help the planet.

  • 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 their online product finder to find out if a laptop model has the TCO-Certified label.

     

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

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a laptop:

  • Is the brand greenwashing and social washing its usage and sourcing of raw materials? Our ratings for environmental reporting, toxic chemicals, supply chain management and conflict minerals cover the materials and labour that go into your laptop.

  • Is the brand’s parent company guilty of ethically-dubious practices? Look for a company’s financial conduct, political involvement, and participation in military and law-enforcement contracts.

     

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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

The past few years have seen a wave of public distrust in technology companies. But it's often digital platforms such as Facebook or Amazon, rather than equipment manufacturers, that get the attention.

The tech industry is, however, rife with military research contracts, aggressive anti-social finance, worker exploitation, toxic e-waste and sustainability issues. Our guide looks at all these topics in the search for an ethical and eco friendly laptop.

The carbon cost: are laptops climate friendly?

The global IT industry produces 272 million laptops every year, with each laptop’s production responsible for an average of 331 kg of CO2. UK daily per capita emissions are about 30 kg per day, so this is about 11 days of your carbon footprint, equivalent to a flight from London to Rome. Emissions are produced at every stage of a laptop’s lifecycle: resource extraction, multiple stages of manufacture, transportation, usage and disposal.

Thinking more broadly, the overall carbon impact of the IT sector is difficult to quantify (partly due to the industry keeping relevant data secret) and estimates sometimes differ by orders of magnitude. It accounts for up to 2.5% of global emissions, but do the efficiency savings that IT makes possible reduce the world's carbon footprint overall?

The sheer complexity and centrality of IT to the modern world makes it hard to say, but Jevon’s paradox or ‘rebound effect’ provides an interesting thought experiment. The paradox occurs when technological progress improves the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the reduced cost of use increases its demand, negating any reduction in resource use.

IT gains have enabled massive energy efficiency improvements across countless industries, but this has then allowed for massive usage increases. Technological progress makes data cheaper, communication faster, and hardware more powerful. People and businesses then consume more data and communicate more, and the industry invents increasingly complex products and services, mitigated by the efficiency gain. Therefore, controlling demand will be crucial if humanity wishes to take advantage of IT’s carbon-saving potential.

For individual consumers, the key takeaway is to purchase less and to get as many years of life from each product as you can.

The manufacturing stage is by far the most resource intensive element of a laptop’s lifecycle. More powerful, higher-quality laptops may have a slightly higher manufacturing footprint, but this is often negated by their longer lifetimes. Buying refurbished or second hand will always be the lowest-carbon option, and make sure to ask about repairability when choosing a model.

The carbon footprint from a year's use of a mid-range MacBook Pro, assuming it lasts 4 years with an average use of 3hrs/day, has been calculated as: 83% carbon embodied in the laptop, 15% network and data centres, 2% electricity use (data from Mike Berners-Lee's book, How bad are Bananas?)

Pie chart of carbon footprint of average laptop. Figures are in the main text.
Data from Mike Berners-Lee's book 'How bad are Bananas?'. Image by Moonloft

How environmentally friendly are laptop brands?

Six laptop companies received our best rating for carbon management and reporting, meaning that they published detailed data on the emissions from different areas of their business, discussed how they had reduced their emissions and would in the future, and had a target to reduce their overall emissions in line with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

The best rated brands for carbon management were:

Mid rated brands for carbon management:

Worst rated brands for carbon management:

Are conflict minerals used in laptops?

All laptops use minerals, commonly referred to as 3TG: tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold. These build the components of laptops, mobile phones and other 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'.

Electronics Watch’s 2022 report highlighted significant workers’ rights and health and safety problems associated with mining. The environment also suffers as chemicals used in washing coltan (tantalum ore) are polluting water bodies and are harmful to people and animals. The exploitation of the minerals is also destroying ecosystems and affecting wildlife habitats.

New legislation came into force in 2021 in the EU that requires EU businesses to ensure that 3TG minerals are sourced responsibly. However, it was too late to become an EU retained law post-Brexit, so currently there is no legislation on conflict minerals in the UK.

Our article on conflict minerals has more detail about the issues involved.

Person's hand holding tin ore
Image (c): Sasha Lezhnev Enough Project

Are harmful chemicals used in laptops ?

Several substances used in the production of laptops and other electronic devices are known to be toxic to human health and the natural environment. These include polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates.

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.

BFRs and PVC become particularly damaging after a device's disposal, releasing highly toxic and carcinogenic dioxins when burned in incinerators or by workers in informal recycling operations.

What can you do to avoid toxic chemicals in laptops?

Look for the TCO Certified label when sourcing a laptop. This label looks at social and environmental factors in the lifecycle of a product.

For a product to achieve 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, Acer, ASUS, Dell, Lenovo, HP and Samsung made TCO certified laptops. These brands were 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.

Toxic waste from tech devices

Video on e-waste and phones, but applies to laptops as well

Are there any sustainable laptop options?

Because the bulk of carbon emissions are associated with the manufacture of the laptop, if you want to make a real difference to its carbon footprint, buy second hand and keep it for as long as possible.

Laptop lifespans can vary depending on original cost:

  • cost under £500 its average lifespan is 2-4 years
  • cost between £500-£750 lifespan is 3-5 years
  • cost over £750 lifespan is 4-7 years.

iFixit rates devices based on their repairability. For laptops, Framework is leading the way.

Refurbished and second hand laptops can be found on Backmarket.com, musicMagpie and Envirofone, all with 12 month warranties. Refurbished products tend to be rated from A (essentially new) to D (will need repairing).

If you are unable to repair it, or get it repaired locally, you could consider dontating it to local or national groups or charities. For example, the Restart Project has donation sites across the UK listed on its website.

If your laptop has reached the end of its life, it should be disposed of properly. This could be taking it to any accredited WEEE recycling point or collector who can safely dispose of it.

Our article on buying refurbished and second hand tech has more info including:

  • what to do if your device breaks
  • repairability
  • disposal

What is closed-loop recycling?

Some companies, particularly Dell, Apple and Lenovo, have been touting circular or closed-loop recycling as a solution to the increasing global e-waste crisis.

A staggering 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2021, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum (WEEE). This is apparently equivalent to the weight of the Great Wall of China.

But closed-loop recycling faces significant obstacles. Just 20% of global e-waste ends up in controlled recycling facilities at present, and they struggle to recover some substances.

Our article on e-waste and toxic tech trash has more details.

Ultimately, producing less waste by creating longer lasting products to begin with would be a far more sustainable solution.

Ariel photo of laptops and tablets and phones on a table with people sitting around table

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Ethical supply chain management in the tech industry

Exploitation and poor working conditions are entrenched within electronics manufacturing, and the complexity of the supply chains means that poor conduct can remain somewhat hidden. It is therefore especially important for brands to have strong supply chain management policies in place as well as systems to identify and correct areas of malpractice.

However, only Dell received our best rating for supply chain management.

Other brands scored as follows:

How fair are the working conditions in electronic suppliers?

The network of suppliers used for electronic devices can cover many companies across many countries. Many consumer IT brands, particularly the US companies, also allocate the assembly of the final product itself to other companies. The largest and most high-profile of these is Foxconn, most famous for assembling Apple’s iPhone, but it also makes products for many other clients including Sony and Dell.

Headquartered in Taiwan, Foxconn is the largest private employer in mainland China where it operates 12 production plants, including an enormous site in Shenzhen, known as Foxconn City, where as many as 400,000 people are employed. Another important manufacturer is Quanta Computers Inc, also Taiwan-based but operating mainly in China, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of laptop computers.

Chinese electronics factories can have gruelling working conditions and, back in 2010, Foxconn City made headlines for a spate of worker suicides, anti-suicide nets below its roofs. In more recent times, conditions for workers have been aggravated by China’s severe and prolonged Covid-19 restrictions.

Research also shows that there is widespread use of Uyghur forced labour within the ICT industry. In the factories, Uyghurs are often paid – if at all – a fraction of that of their Han Chinese counterparts. Various human rights groups have been calling for an end to this type of modern slavery.

A separate article has more detail about workers' rights in the tech industry.

Workers at an electronic factory in China
Workers at a Foxconn electronics factory in China. Credit: Zolo.

Price comparison of laptops

Our recommended Framework laptops start at £819 depending on the specifications you select, or there is a preconfigured option for £899.

From our other recommended brands, Acer’s TCO Certified Chromebook 311 is priced around £200 (and comes with Google’s Chrome OS operating system).

For a cheap TCO Certified model with Microsoft Windows, the ASUS BR1100F convertible laptop was priced at around £170 at the time of writing.

The rest of the companies in the guide tend to have a large range of laptops at different price points depending on the specs.

Apple’s MacBook comes at a premium price compared with other brands but does have a reputation for durability and longevity, which is worth factoring in.

One of the best ways to get value for money of course, is to buy second hand or refurbished devices, and it often makes financial sense to get a higher-spec model a couple of years old rather than a brand new but less powerful model for the same price.

Anti-social financial practices in the tech industry

Like many industries dominated by large multinational corporations, the IT sector is beset by unethical financial practices.

Tax avoidance, monopolisation and excessive CEO remuneration were recurrent themes of our research, and no companies came out particularly well. LG was the only brand that didn’t receive our worst rating for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies, yet even it lost a half mark – it too had subsidiaries in tax havens, they were just lower-risk company types.

US-headquartered firms tended to be the worst offenders of all. HP allegedly paid no US federal income tax in 2020 and faces a litany of tax evasion claims against its global subsidiaries.

Dell boasts an unapologetically ‘tax efficient’ tax planning strategy and paid its CEO a total of $51 million in 2021. This same CEO, Michael S Dell, argued at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum that high top marginal tax rates have ‘never worked’ and hurt economic growth.

Given such low industry standards, it is difficult to offer any enthusiastic brand recommendations on the basis of financial ethics.

No brands in this guide received a best rating for tax conduct.

Cartoon at tech company where chart of the CEO's pay has risen off the scale
Cartoon (C) Mike Bryson

The tech industry's military links

Many IT companies are industry leaders in research that enables state surveillance and military advancement.

HP-E, HP’s corporate-facing wing, and technically a separate business since 2015, received $2 billion from the US government in 2021 to provide AI data processing systems for the National Security Agency (NSA). The company also has a range of long-running contracts with the Israeli police and military, and played a crucial role in developing and maintaining the ‘Basel System’, the biometric identification system installed on checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian Territory.

And HP is far from an outlier in this respect. Research from the non-profit ‘Tech Inquiry’ in 2020 revealed both the sector-wide nature and systematic under-reporting of such arrangements, uncovering 5,000 contracts between US law enforcement and Microsoft alone.

The US military continues to push for closer ties with Silicon Valley firms, whilst Google’s against-the-grain withdrawal from a Pentagon weapons development contract in 2018 was branded ‘treasonous’ and a ‘national security threat’ in otherwise liberal US media. Google’s ‘treason’ stemmed from a worker-demanded commitment to not building weapons systems, a principle that was met with incredulity by policymakers. General Joseph Dunford neatly summarised the army’s approach: “Hey, we’re the good guys … It’s inexplicable to me that we wouldn’t have a cooperative relationship with the private sector.”

Moving into an era of increasing global geo-political instability, this potent mixture of moralising political pressures and lucrative financial incentives all but guarantees the continuation of this trend.

For consumers that don’t wish to align themselves with military or state surveillance, we’d recommend principally avoiding Dell, HP and Microsoft. Samsung too has a large defence department, which supplies weapons systems to the Turkish military. Turkey continues to suppress Kurdish groups within its borders and launches regular attacks against Kurdistan Workers’ Party bases in Iraq and Syria.

Smaller companies such as Framework are a safer bet, and we found no evidence of military links for Taiwan-based ASUS and Acer. For a large US company, Apple emerges better than most, and was singled out in Tech Inquiry’s research for staying out of major military and law-enforcement contracts.

Are there any ethical operating systems for laptops?

While there is a range of laptop brands to choose from, there are fewer options when it comes to software that enables you to use them – the operating system (or OS). Broadly speaking, you have four choices of OS to consider:

1) Microsoft Windows is the most common. It comes pre-installed on most laptops, other than those made by Apple, and has the convenience of being familiar to most users.

2) Apple MacOS only runs on Apple-manufactured machines. It has a reputation for being less error-prone and less vulnerable to security issues than Windows, however, Apple’s machines tend to be expensive and difficult to repair when they break.

3) Google ChromeOS is a more recent addition to the market and is based mainly around the Chrome web browser, and the concept of being more simple and requiring less computing power than the other operating systems. However, it does not have such a range of programmes available to install. Laptops that run ChromeOS are known as Chromebooks.

4) Linux is a free and open-source operating system with a reputation for being powerful and secure. It actually comes in a wide range of ‘distributions’ (forms), which are built on top of the same core components. Linux typically takes a little more technical expertise to install and get to grips with (although this is becoming less true as it evolves). Two popular distributions for casual users and beginners are Ubuntu and Mint, which can be downloaded for free and installed on any computer also capable of running Windows; a great choice for those trying to escape the tyranny of the silicon-valley tech giants!

End note: Additional research on this guide by Tom Bryson

Company behind the brand

Framework Computer Inc provides an innovative alternative to conventional laptop design. Every important component is easy to access and replace, and the company provides free repair guides and stocks replacement parts on its website. This stands in stark contrast with Apple MacBooks, which tend to have their major components soldered in place.

Framework’s branding appeals to a tech-savvy audience and it maintains a community forum to encourage design feedback and scope new design developments. This open dialogue does not extend to its financials, however. The company discloses minimal public financial reporting, its company structure indicates the possible use of tax avoidance strategies, and Framework declined our information request for detailed reporting or policy. In the absence of publicly available data, the company scored badly in our environmental, supply chain and tax conduct categories.

Whilst this lack of transparency is disappointing, the innovative potential of Framework’s product still earns it our recommendation. Interestingly, it may also be driving a broader industry shift towards replaceability and repairability. HP, Dell, LG and Samsung have since released some easily repairable and upgradeable models, and we are hopeful that this trend will continue.

 
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 above.

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