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Mobile Phone Networks

We investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 22 mobile phone networks.

We explore their carbon impact, tax avoidance, how to switch providers, give our Best Buy recommendations and shine a spotlight on Utility Warehouse.

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 a mobile phone network:

  • 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 look for when choosing a mobile network:

  • Do they pay their fair share of tax? Avoid those companies who score a worst Ethical Consumer rating in our tax conduct column for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

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

This guide looks at 22 mobile phone networks. The Big Four (O2, EE, Three, and Vodafone) have their own mobile network infrastructure. The other operators are called ‘Virtual Mobile Network Operators’ (VMNO) as they provide services by ‘piggy-backing’ on the others’ infrastructure.

The Big Four have similar scores apart from Three. Their Ethiscore ratings in this guide are:

  • Vodafone: 7.5
  • EE: 6
  • O2: 6
  • Three: 3

Apart from the very top and bottom of the score table, there is not much to separate most of the networks.

Ecotalk and Your Co-op are the standout ethical brands, whilst four brands – Three, Smarty, Tesco and ASDA – languish at the bottom of the table.

The major issue in the industry is tax avoidance, of which much more below. We have focused on Vodafone, once synonymous with tax avoidance, and Lycamobile for tax because although they both appear near the top of the score table, this position belies their still dubious tax practices.

What’s new in the mobile phone network?

We last looked at mobile phone networks in 2019. The Big Four (EE, O2, Vodafone, Three) continue to dominate the market overall with just over half of all customers. EE still has the biggest individual market share (18%) but O2 is close behind followed by Vodafone and then Three lagging with only 9% of the market.

But there have been a number of changes:

  • Honest Mobile is a new entry which markets itself as the most sustainable network and claims to be carbon negative. See more below.
  • Virgin Media and O2, two of the biggest names in the telecoms industry, have merged in what was the UK’s biggest telecoms deal to become, surprise surprise, Virgin Media O2. The merger will mean that they will become the biggest network.
  • Vodafone has been in talks with CK Hutchison to merge with Three – so there could soon only be three actual networks in the UK.

Which phone networks piggyback on whom?

The table below, ranked by combined score, shows the actual networks used by each VMNO and what effect this relationship has on the network’s Ethiscore.

The most obvious effect is that Honest Mobile drops from the top of the table due to it piggybacking on the lowest scoring actual network, Three.

Virtual Mobile Network Operator Actual network Average of the combined score of VMNO and network
Ecotalk EE 9.5
Lebara Vodafone 9.25
Honest Mobile Three 8.25
Lycamobile O2 8.25
VOXI Vodafone 7.5 – Vodafone owns Voxi
Talkmobile Vodafone 7.5 – Vodafone owns Talkmobile
Virgin Mobile* Vodafone/O2 6.75 using Vodafone, 6 on O2
Your Co-op EE 6.75
Sky Mobile O2 6.5
1p Mobile EE 6.25
Utility Warehouse EE 6.25
Plusnet EE 6 – Plusnet is owned by BT which owns EE
BT Mobile EE 6 – BT owns EE
Giffgaff O2 6 – Virgin Media O2 owns Giffgaff
iD Mobile Three 5
ASDA Vodafone 4.75
Tesco Mobile O2 4
Smarty Three 3 – Three owns Smarty

(*) Some existing customers (or those on other deals) will still be on the EE network, until they're moved over to Vodafone throughout 2022. But now that Virgin Media and O2 have merged it is likely that Virgin Mobile will soon be using the O2 network. 

Is there an environmentally friendly mobile phone network?

Carbon emissions and mobile phone networks

For network operators, carbon emissions come from:

  • their own operations and emissions from electricity and heating use;
  • customers using their phones for calls, messages and the internet – resulting in energy used to run data centres and servers.

For our Carbon Management and Reporting rating we rated all the companies on what they were doing to reduce their own carbon footprint and the footprint of their suppliers.

The following companies got our Best rating for saying how they were cutting their own emissions, reporting their emissions (including their indirect emissions – of their supply chain and use of their products) and having a reduction target in line with international agreements:

Honest Mobile and carbon offsetting

Honest Mobile claims to be carbon negative because “we offset double the amount of CO2 emissions associated with all calls, messages, data, charging your phone, manufacture of your phone, and the running of Honest HQ.”

95% of the offsets are through planting trees, and the other 5% by biochar and direct air capture. They also donate 1% of revenue towards reforestation projects and planting trees for each of their customers.

Donating to such projects is a good thing, although given that only 5% is biochar and air capture it does look a bit like those are just there to ‘sex up’ the portfolio, which is almost entirely tree planting.

But it is confusing and misleading to make claims to be ‘carbon negative’ on the back of such donations.

To get to net zero it is accepted that there will have to be some use of carbon offsetting right at the end of the process, once we've cut by about 90-95%, as there will be some residual emissions that cannot be done away with. But carbon offsetting now is not equivalent to cutting emissions – for one thing, there simply isn’t enough land to offset all of our emissions with trees.
 
We're pleased that Honest Mobile donate the money, but not that they use this to make misleading claims. We therefore decided that we would make Honest Mobile a Recommended brand rather than a Best Buy.

A Best Buy brand, Your Co-op, also funds offsetting projects, but it does not make these claims on the back of it.

Types of carbon offset

Biochar is essentially charcoal that is made from biomass (plant or animal matter) and used as a soil additive. Turning biomass into charcoal prevents it from decomposing, thus locking up the carbon permanently. And in a win-win, adding some to the soil can be good for plant growth.

Direct Air Capture is an expensive new technology that captures carbon from the air, which is then pumped underground.

A word about SIM cards and carbon savings

A couple of networks are making carbon and resource savings, albeit very small given the size of a SIM card, from using recycled plastic in their SIM cards:

  • Honest Mobile – half-sized, postconsumer recycled plastic
  • Vodafone – half-sized Eco-SIM recycled plastic.

Vodafone, EE, Three and O2 and many of the virtual networks offer digital, plastic-free eSIMs, a tiny chip that's already installed in your phone rather than a physical SIM card. But there are currently only a limited number of phones that are eSIM compatible.

Of our Best Buys and Recommended brands, Honest Mobile plans to introduce these by the end of this year. Ecotalk and Your Co-op don’t currently offer them.

How can you reduce your carbon impact when using your mobile phone?

IT carbon emissions are wildly disputed with some people saying they are often over inflated. However, it is generally agreed that, as stated in the mobile phones guide, the majority of emissions associated with mobile phones come from the manufacture of the phone.

So, whilst not buying a new phone is recommended, a very small carbon saving can come from how you use your phone. Here are some suggestions from Mike Berners-Lee’s book ‘How bad are bananas?’:

The longer you take to write an email and the longer your contact takes to read it, the more the emissions. And if you copy in lots of people who then have to read it, that will bump up the footprint. Email attachments also increase the footprint – send a link to a document instead. And unsubscribe from mailing lists you no longer read.

Sending unnecessary emails, like ‘Thank you’ or ‘LOL’ is another waste of carbon. In 2019, Ovo Energy ran a ‘Think Before You Thank’ campaign to stop people sending unnecessary emails. Their study found that if every adult in the UK sent one fewer “thank you” emails each day, the country would save more than 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year.

To put this figures in context, 16,000 tonnes amount to 0.0002% of our annual carbon footprint and you might think that thanking people, and phoning people, is important for social relationships.

You can cut the emissions from sending texts by just sending plain text rather than gifs, emojis and images. Mike Berners-Lee says that if you want to reduce your communication footprint, texting is better than phone calls and phone calls are better than calls over the internet because the networks use less energy. But even so, the differences are still relatively small.

For an internet connection on your phone, he suggests using Wi-Fi instead of mobile data, especially for large downloads.

How to switch provider

It’s now much easier to switch to a more ethical network provider. You used to have to phone your current network provider when you wanted to switch and request a ‘porting authorisation code’ (PAC) to give to your new provider if you wanted to keep the same phone number.

From July 1st 2019, you’ve been able to cancel your contract by sending a single free text (‘PAC’ to 65075 to keep your old number or ‘STAC’ to 75075 get a new one) to your current network and they will send you a switching code. Give that to your new provider and they will switch you within one working day – regardless of whether you have a contract or pay-as-you-go phone.

You may be charged early termination fees if you leave before the notice period of your existing contract.

Mobile phone networks and tax avoidance

We rated the 22 networks in the Tax Conduct column for their likely use of tax avoidance strategies. Only five of them, less than a quarter, got our best rating, with the rest getting our worst rating.

Best rating on tax avoidance: Ecotalk, Honest Mobile, 1p Mobile, Utility Warehouse, Your Co-op.

Two noteworthy companies who got a worst rating are Lycamobile and Vodafone.

Lycamobile

Lycamobile is embroiled in three disputes with the UK tax authorities over at least £60 million in tax. The disputes relate to corporation tax, VAT, PAYE and national insurance stretching back ten years.

In 2012, the Guardian disclosed that Lycamobile had paid no corporation tax for three years. It has also risked being struck off as a company because it failed to publish its annual accounts on time. In 2016, its own auditors said its complex web of offshore and UK companies was so opaque that they could not account for £134 million of assets.

Vodafone

Around 2014, Vodafone was the target of so many protests that it became synonymous with tax avoidance. Is Vodafone now a reformed tax payer? It certainly is more transparent and better at explaining its tax affairs, but it is still being criticised for profit shifting to low tax jurisdictions and it still receives our worst rating in this category.

image: fair tax protestors vodaphone tax avoidance sign vidaphone tax dodgers
In 2014, UK Uncut protesters targeted Vodafone for paying no corporation tax since 2011.

How ethical are mobile phone networks?

As well as issues of climate change and tax avoidance discussed above, we also looked other ethical issues such as conflict minerals and workers' rights.

Conflict minerals and mobile phone networks

Minerals such as tin, tungsten, tantalum, cobalt and gold are used in components of IT products and electronics to conduct and store electricity. Our article on conflict minerals in technology has more detail about the problems associated with mining and production.

We rate companies making electronics and IT for their policies in this area.

Workers’ rights at suppliers

Most companies got our worst rating in the Supply Chain Management category.

Two of the big networks – BT and Vodafone – were both rated middle.

  • BT fared well on basics like forced and child labour, working hours and freedom of association, but had an inadequate clause on wages as it required suppliers to pay only the wages set by law rather than a living wage. BT and Openreach workers are currently striking (September 2022) over a pay rise that is below inflation.
  • Similarly, Vodafone only required "fair and reasonable pay".

Your Co-op received a best rating as its owner Midcounties is mainly supplied by the buying group run by the Co-op Group, which has good supply chain management.

Ecotalk, Honest Mobile, Lebara and Lycamobile who only provide SIM cards so were not rated in this category.

Why is Your Co-op Mobile (previously The Phone Co-op) a Best Buy?

Midcounties Co-operative Society, a co-operative retailer, merged with The Phone Co-op in 2018. The Phone Co-op had been an independent consumer co-operative, owned by its members, for twenty years. The name was then changed to Your Co-op.

Midcounties is the largest independent consumer cooperative in the UK and is a member of The Co-operative Federal Trading Services, a buying group owned and controlled by each of its member societies but managed by The Co-op Group.

Midcounties picks up the usual supermarket negative marks for selling things like non-organic meat, products with palm oil in, and animal-tested cosmetics, and it donated £281,164 to the Co-operative Party from 2017 to September 2022. That accounts for Your Co-op’s drop in score from 12, when it was independent, to 6.5. But it also picks up positive marks because it follows The Co-op Group’s policies in areas such as environmental reporting, supply chain management and use of toxic chemicals.

Your Co-op says it offsets 25 kg of its mobile customers’ carbon footprint and “plants a tree each month for every customer which will contribute to future decarbonisation when the trees mature in 10-20 years’ time”.

We are recommending Your Co-op as a Best Buy despite being mid-table because it is an alternative provider in the networks market. Within the co-operative movement, Midcounties has a reputation for being the most active co-op in the group for promoting and developing the co-operative business model. Aside from retail, it runs other innovative businesses cooperatively such as Co-operative Nurseries which now has 45 nurseries across the UK. Midcounties was also a pioneer of the Fair Tax Mark.

Cartoon: Person standing on top of tower or rubbish with satellite dishes saying 'can you hear me now?'
Image (c) Mike Bryson for ECRA

What about 5G?

5G is so-called because it is the fifth generation of wireless communication standards. It arrived in the UK in 2019 but is still being rolled out. The four major networks (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) offer 5G service but mostly just in towns and cities:

  • EE – 160 towns & cities
  • Three – 303 towns & cities
  • Vodafone – 150 towns & cities
  • O2 – 183 towns & cities.

Check the 5G coverage in your postcode. The 5G coverage website also tells you which piggybacking networks also offer 5G.

The government says that it will insist that networks reach 90% coverage by 2024, which could be great news for people living in urban areas, but we’ve all heard government promises before.

5G essentially means that download speeds will be substantially quicker – you’ll be able to download a film in seconds. It will also have lower latency, the time it takes for something to happen.

In the future, 5G will enable ‘the internet of things’ – connected infrastructure, turning everything from lampposts and roads, to bins and bike racks into smart objects and including the much-vaunted self-driving cars.

The roll-out of 5G has meant that new masts have been built. Despite suggestions that it is bad for you or causes Covid, there is no evidence that it is dangerous. Studies from organisations including the World Health Organisation (WHO), Public Health England and the UK Health Protection Agency have all shown that 5G isn’t harmful to health. The wavelength 5G operates at is non-ionising radiation. That means it doesn't produce enough energy to damage the cells in your body.

Should I get a new 5G phone and contract?

To access the 5G network, you’ll need a 5G enabled phone and to be on a 5G contract (which will probably cost more) with a network that offers 5G in your area. Most new mobile phones and some existing ones support 5G. To check go to Settings > Wi-Fi and network > Mobile network and then see if 5G is listed under 'preferred network type'. (LTE is half way between 3G and 4G by the way).

From an environmental point of view, it only makes sense to get a new phone when your old phone stops working and can’t be repaired. When that happens, you might want to think about getting a 5G one to future-proof your device. Our mobile phone Best Buy, the Fairphone 4, supports 5G.

NB: 2G and 3G networks are still in operation but they’re expected to be switched off across the UK by 2023 so you’ll have to get at least a 4G enabled phone then. It will be more than a decade before the 4G signal gets shut down leaving just the 5G network.

Company behind the brand

Utility Warehouse supplies its customers with landlines, mobile phone networks, broadband, gas and electricity. It bundles the services into one bill, and you can get discounts the more services you buy from them.

Utility Warehouse doesn’t advertise but relies on partners and customer recommendations in what some people have likened to a pyramid scheme, which are illegal in the UK. If you become a partner you are effectively part of the sales team and are signed up to trying to find new customers and partners, for which you are rewarded, not with a fixed salary, but with cash incentives and commission. Whilst Utility Warehouse says partners can earn up to £1 million a year, Guardian Money found that the average amount was less than £12 a week, before costs, the £50 joining fee if you are a customer and tax. To earn £1 million you would need to recruit 500,000 people and Utility Warehouse only has 645,000 customers.

As an electricity supplier it only sources 3.5% of its electricity from renewable sources with 6% coal, 74.5% gas and 9.8% nuclear. It was marked down in the Climate Change category for using more than 5% coal and in Controversial Technologies for using nuclear.

It doesn’t generate renewable electricity or buy it directly from renewable generators. Customers on renewable tariffs have their electricity matched by Utility Warehouse buying REGO (renewable energy guarantees of origin) certificates which confirm that someone else has generated that amount of renewable energy. REGOs are meant to subsidise building more renewable energy but there is more renewable energy generated than demanded so there is a surplus of REGOs and buying REGOs doesn’t actually, currently, result in the support and development of renewable energy.

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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