Mobile Phones

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 19 mobile phone brands.

We also give our Best Buy recommendations and look at company approaches to conflict minerals and toxic chemicals.

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 mobile phone:

  • Does the brand score well for its conflict minerals policy? Conflict minerals are associated with a number of issues including; poor workers rights, pollution and the funding of armed conflicts.

  • Does the brand score well 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.

Best Buys

If you want to support a social enterprise aiming to challenge and transform the industry, this stand out Best Buy is for you:

If the Fairphone is not for you, we also recommend that you buy a second-hand or refurbished phone, wherever possible, to reduce your environmental impact.

For a more basic or ‘feature’ phone we recommend Doro, who specialise in easy-to-use phones. They score relatively well by avoiding lobby groups, they don't pay excessive amounts to Directors and the don't score badly for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a mobile phone:

  • Does the company score a worst Ethical Consumer rating for its supply chain management policy? Try and avoid those companies who are failing to address workers rights issues. Some companies in this market do not even have a supply chain management policy and really should be avoided.

Companies to avoid

Both of the companies listed below score a worst Ethical Consumer rating for their supply chain management, toxic chemicals and conflict minerals policies.

  • Alcatel
  • HTC

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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

Fairphone smartphone [S]

Company Profile: Fairphone
15

Doro mobile phone

Company Profile: Doro AB
9

LG mobile phones [S]

Company Profile: LG Electronics Inc
8.5

Archos smartphones

Company Profile: Archos SA
8

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 [E,S]

Company Profile: Samsung Electronics Co Ltd
8

iPhone smartphone [S]

Company Profile: Apple Inc
8

Acer smartphones

Company Profile: Acer Inc.
7.5

Alcatel mobile phones

Company Profile: TCL Communication
7.5

Blackberry smartphones [S]

Company Profile: BlackBerry Limited
7.5

Huawei Mate S & Mate 8 [S]

Company Profile: Huawei Investment & Holding Co. Ltd
7.5

Nokia mobile phones

Company Profile: FIH Mobile
7

Samsung mobile phones [S]

Company Profile: Samsung Electronics Co Ltd
7

Sony Xperia mobile phones [S]

Company Profile: Sony Corp
7

ZTE mobile phone

Company Profile: ZTE Corporation
7

Huawei smartphone

Company Profile: Huawei Investment & Holding Co. Ltd
6.5

HTC smartphones

Company Profile: High Tech Computer Corp (HTC)
6

Google Pixel smartphone

Company Profile: Google Inc
5.5

Lumia mobile phones

Company Profile: Microsoft Mobile
5.5

Microsoft Lumia/Surface Smartphone

Company Profile: Microsoft Corporation
5.5

Moto smartphones

Company Profile: Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc
5.5

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

In just nine years since the launch of the first full touchscreen smartphone, it looks set to become the most successful consumer electronics device of all time. Globally, it’s predicted that about 1.5 billion smartphones will go on sale in 2016 – that’s more than all PCs, tablets, televisions and games consoles put together.

A recent survey showed that 81% of adults in the UK now own a smartphone, rising to 90% of 18-24 year olds.[1]

With growth this fast, ethics can get left behind. The electronics industry is notorious for low wages, excessive overtime, exploitation of migrant and student workers, and crucially, a lack of the ‘freedom of association’ workers need to be able to improve their conditions.

There are also multiple issues around mining for materials used; hazardous chemicals leading to deadly health problems and pollution; electronic waste and energy use. The speed at which the phone market has grown, and the culture of frequent upgrades, just increases the strain.

One in three UK adults and half of 18-24 year olds check their phones in the middle of the night, disrupting their sleep patterns. More than half of owners reach for their smartphone within a quarter of an hour of waking.
 

Who makes mobiles?

Samsung and Apple dominate the smartphone market, accounting for over three fifths (62%) of owners. Apple is more popular with 16-24 year olds and the higher income bracket whilst Samsung owners tend to be less well-off and aged 35-54.

Microsoft bought Nokia’s mobile business in April 2014, but rebranded the smartphones as Microsoft Lumia.

The iconic Nokia brand is still used by Microsoft on Nokia feature phones. However, in May 2016, Microsoft announced the sale of the Nokia-branded feature phones to a division of the controversial electronics manufacturer Foxconn, and HMD global, a new company in Finland made up of veteran Nokia staff. We will update the Nokia brand with its new ownership once the phones become available.

The Moto brand has now been bought by the computer manufacturer Lenovo, giving it a foothold in the market. Even Amazon experimented with its own smartphone, but it disappeared soon after appearing in 2014.

Smartphone or feature phone?

Feature phones are a cheaper alternative to smartphones and have more limited capabilities. Feature phones typically provide voice calling and text messaging functions, in addition to basic multimedia and internet capabilities. Because they have less functions, they consume less energy.

Smartphones let you do a lot more than feature phones. They have full internet access, so are great for checking the news or your emails and even watching movies while you’re out and about. You can download ‘apps’ (computer programs) for all sorts of things like booking train tickets, internet banking, and social media. Basically everything you could do on a home computer or laptop, but more mobile. But the more a phone does, the more energy it consumes, hence the ongoing need to regularly recharge your smartphone battery.

If all you really want from your mobile is a cheap phone to make calls, send texts and have a long-lasting battery, a feature phone is for you. They’re really easy to use and don’t come with loads of extra features that you might be unlikely to use. Alcatel, Doro, Samsung and Nokia all make feature phones.

What’s in a phone?

A smartphone is about 40% metals, 40% plastics and 20% ceramics and resin. As well as the ‘conflict minerals’ tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold, phones also contain: silver, nickel and lead in the circuit board; cobalt, zinc and copper in the battery; as well as arsenic, chromium and selenium, all of which can leak during production and disposal. Unless recycled metals are used, they must all be mined, and this can mean communities are displaced, biodiversity destroyed, and vast amounts of water and fossil fuels are used for processing and extraction.

What’s more, in January 2016, Amnesty has accused Apple, Samsung and Sony, and 13 other companies, of failing to do basic checks to ensure cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries is not mined by children in the Congo.

Score table highlights

Only Fairphone got a best Ethical Consumer rating for its supply chain management, having demonstrated a core commitment to improving workers’ rights. Just three companies (Apple, ZTE and Microsoft) got a middle rating. The rest got a ‘worst’ rating. Some companies didn’t even publish a supply chain policy for workers’ rights (Archos, Doro, TCL and Huawei).

Of those who had a policy, key clauses on child labour and/or working hours were inadequate. Two companies did not specify a minimum age for workers (LG and HTC), and one company (ZTE) did not specify an upper limit to working hours. Ethical Consumer expected a company to clearly state that a maximum working week constitutes 48 hours plus 12 hours’ overtime.

Google and Amazon, along with five companies whose supply chain policy was based on the industry-led Electronics Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC) Code of Conduct (Acer, Lenovo, Sony, BlackBerry and Samsung), only limited the working week to 60 hours, rather than 48 hours before overtime.

conflict minerals

Phones and conflict minerals

The mobile phone market has faced quite a lot of scrutiny from civil society over its use of conflict minerals. Fairphone has tried to drive change in this respect with its mission to make a phone without including human rights abuses. Fairphone is therefore involved in several multi-stakeholder initiatives which aim to develop and support the trade of conflict-free minerals.

Fairphone’s website provides a breakdown of each of the conflict minerals and the work it has done to support ‘conflict-free’ mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and to source conflict-free minerals.

As US publicly-listed companies, six of the big brands in this market have to submit reports under the Dodd-Frank Act and subsequently score well in our ratings. Although Lenovo, Acer and LG don’t have to report, they still have a conflict minerals policy which commits them to continue sourcing from the DRC and they have well-developed policies covering ‘due diligence’ and releasing lists of their smelters and/or refiners (SORs).

Disappointingly the mobile phone market also contains companies which have failed to even acknowledge or report on the issue: Archos and TCL.

Samsung also failed to score highly because it does not explicitly state that it will continue to support trade in the DRC.

Conflict minerals ratings:

Best Rating: Fairphone, Apple, Blackberry, Sony, Acer, Mocrosoft and Nokia, Lenovo, LG, Google

Middle Rating: ZTE

Worst Rating: Archos, Doro, TCL (Alcatel), Huawei, HTC, Samsung

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 and PVC are both organohalogens. Some well-known (and very hazardous) examples of organohalogens include PCBs, DDT, and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) – all of which are now globally banned by the United Nation’s Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) treaty.

Toxic chemicals policy ratings

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.

Unfortunately, most 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.

Best toxics rating – Apple, BlackBerry,

Middle toxics rating – Acer, Fairphone, Samsung, LG, Huawei

Worst toxics rating – Microsoft had inadequate policies. Alcatel,  Archos, Doro, Google, HTC,  ZTE provided no information.

 
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’, 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.

Out of all the products covered in these guides, the mobile phone sector has been the most progressive in removing these chemicals from products. All the phones of the two market leaders – Samsung and Apple – are PVC, BFR and phthalate-free.

PVC, BFR and phthalate free

All Samsungs, all Apple iPhones, all BlackBerrys, all LG, all Sony phones. Plus Huawei’s Mate S & Mate 8 models.

Mobile phone tracking

Mobile phones are effectively hand-held radio transceivers, which constantly search for signals from ‘cell towers’ or masts through which they connect to the mobile network. In order to work, mobile phones must remain in contact with the network using the strongest available tower signal.

In this sense, locating and tracking is fundamental to how a mobile phone works and to how network operators provide an effective service for their customers. By triangulating the phone’s signal using two additional towers, it is possible to locate a phone more precisely, accuracy can be further increased by combining the cell tower connections with GPS and WiFi signals.

Who wants to locate your phone?

Location services can be useful personal tools for people with smartphones. They improve the accuracy of map applications, enable geo-tagging of social media posts and can even provide alerts for location-based errands e.g. ‘get cash’ alert appears when you are within 100m of an ATM.
These are all examples of active location services, in which location information is sent from the phone at the subscriber’s request. Subscribers can turn these active location services off and on in the phone settings.

Location information can also be passively detected on a mobile phone by a third party. Sometimes this is done at the request of the subscriber via that third party. For example, applications exist that enable subscribers to locate lost or stolen phones through their WiFi signal (providing it is switched on) and their phone signal (providing it is on and connected to the network).

Similarly, companies such as MobileLocate, Creativity Software and Mobile Commerce offer services that can ‘find’ specific individuals through their mobile phone handsets. Legally these services require the consent of the ‘locatee’ to be located, meaning that parents cannot monitor their children without their children’s knowledge, or employers their employees.

Some passive location services, however, are operational without subscribers’ knowledge and without any clear indication on the phone handset.

Locating consumers

An example is FootPath developed by Path Intelligence. This software uses strategically positioned devices to locate and track mobile phones within a shop or throughout a shopping centre, helping retailers to better understand customer browsing and purchasing behaviour and therefore optimise their layouts.

Shopping centres can also use this information to set rents for retail units, advertise events, as well as improve the siting of emergency exits and amenities. Path Intelligence claims that this kind of tracking is equivalent to the way online shops track customers’ movements and that FootPath simply levels the playing field for offline retail outlets.

The information gathered from mobile phones by FootPath are the unique numbers assigned to handsets by the network operator – the Temporary Mobile Subscriber Identifier or TMSI. They do not identify the user, their telephone number or the content of texts, phone calls or emails. This enables Path Intelligence to promote FootPath as gathering ‘anonymous’ data.

Mobile phones with WiFi receivers are also open to passive location services, otherwise known as WiFi ‘sniffing’. A recent high profile example of this concerned recycling bins installed in the City of London. These bins recorded information from nearby mobiles phones with WiFi turned on and used this to target the electronic adverts on the bins to specific passers-by. By sniffing WiFi across an area, these bins can track the movements of people/phones over time, learn their habits and enable advertisers to target particular individuals.

This kind of targeted advertising is already in use by mobile networks who use software such as AdvertWise (Creativity Software) or companies like Weve (a joint venture by EE, O2 and Vodafone) to send location-based adverts and offers to consumers when they are close to a certain ‘attraction’ (restaurant, shopping centre, theatre etc.).

What you can do

You can minimise the possibility of being tracked by commercial organisations in several ways. Firstly, turn off the WiFi receiver when you leave a WiFi zone and turn off all location services. If you want to avoid being located through your signal, you can turn this off manually or by switching your phone to ‘flight mode’ whenever possible.

Subscribers should be able to stop targeted advertising messages simply by texting STOP to a specified (free) number. If such messages continue even after you have requested them to stop, you should report this to Ofcom.

You can also:

  • Disable location tracking on your phone in Location Services.
  • Install an anti-tracking app like Untrackered, PrivacyFix, WhisperMonitor or PryFi.
  • Turn off wifi, bluetooth and GPS.
  • Don’t allow apps to access personal data or locations.

As long as your phone is connected to the network, your network operator is able to triangulate your location from your use of mobile phone masts. You can only avoid this by switching your phone off or switching it to flight mode.

Mobiles and health

British neurosurgeon Kevin O’Neill, Chairman of the Brain Tumour Research Campaign, says: “It would be a mistake to ignore the mounting evidence pointing to a link between mobile phones and risks to health, especially when we know that children are much more vulnerable to phone radiation and that there are simple measures available to help them cut their exposure. We have an opportunity now to promote safety measures, mindful of the benefits of mobile phone technology but reflecting the potentially serious risks”.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed these concerns when, in May 2011, its expert panel of 30 scientists classified mobile phone radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” after having reviewed all the existing evidence. This classification is often the first step towards an exposure being classified as probably or definitely carcinogenic. Indeed, some of the scientists on the panel argued that the higher level categorisation (“probably carcinogenic”) was already justified.

More research needed

However, WHO concluded that the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk. In particular, with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, WHO has promoted further research on this group.

UK charity MobileWise highlights the fact that the use of mobiles among primary school children is on the rise and that by secondary school 9 out of 10 children are using them, many habitually. MobileWise is calling for them to be informed about how to limit their exposure – including keeping calls to a minimum, texting, using headsets and keeping phones away from the groin.

It states that phone companies should actively engage in the information campaign, providing customers with clear practical advice in marketing literature, on websites and during conversation. Small-print warnings in phone instruction manuals should be replaced with clear statements in a prominent place on phone packaging.

Government advice

The Department of Health has issued warnings about the risks of mobile use, recommending that under-16s use phones only for essential calls. But MobileWise criticises the Government for doing little to publicise these warnings, citing the fact that the current Department of Health/NHS leaflet has never been printed and is only available as a pdf on the Department of Health website. More information from MobileWise and the NHS 

WHO gives this advice about reducing exposure levels:

  • Mobile phones are low-powered radiofrequency transmitters. The handset only transmits power when it is turned on. The power (and hence the radio frequency exposure to a user) falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. A person using a mobile phone 30–40 cm away from their body – for example when text messaging, accessing the Internet, or using a ‘hands free’ device – will therefore have a much lower exposure to radio frequency fields than someone holding the handset against their head.
  • In addition to using ‘hands-free’ devices, which keep mobile phones away from the head and body during phone calls, exposure is also reduced by limiting the number and length of calls.
  • Using the phone in areas of good reception also decreases exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power.

See our feature on the health impacts of mobile phones for more information on this. 

Company Profile

Dutch company, Fairphone started as a awareness campaign about conflict minerals in 2010. Three years later, in January 2013, it set up as a social enterprise, and pre-sold 10,000 smartphones through crowd-funding. Now there are over 100,000 Fairphone owners.

The idea was not just to create awareness about the problems associated with mobile phones, but to understand their production, and work out how to provide a positive alternative. Their mission is to create a positive social and environmental impact from the beginning to the end of a phone’s life cycle via long lasting design, fair materials, good working conditions, reuse and recycling.

Transparency is a core Fairphone principle. Fairphone provides a detailed cost breakdown of what you are supporting when you buy its phone. Their goal is to track each and every component they use to make the Fairphone – from start to finish.  A map of their supply chain is on their website.

The relatively small size of the company means it has higher manufacturing costs, but purchases also support the investment costs of developing the modular design (which means the phone is easier to repair), and support its Worker Welfare Fund, social assessments, and projects that help source conflict-free minerals.

Fairphone is just one customer of the Chinese factory, Hi-P, that makes its phones. Fairphone are open and honest about the challenges in the industry, aiming to gradually improve working conditions, employee engagement and representation. It is open about the fact that a 100% fair phone is not really achievable.

In its supply chain, Fairphone finally managed to integrate conflict-free tungsten in June 2016, achieving traceability for all four internationally recognised ‘conflict minerals’ – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The gold in ‘Fairphone 2’ is certified Fairtrade. 

It is currently working on the sourcing of the cobalt in its batteries, including research on using recycled material instead of virgin mined material. For the Fairphone 2, it is working with two battery suppliers neither of which are mentioned in the Amnesty report. Fairphone have openly said: “it is not unlikely that in some way or another the supply chain of the Fairphone 2 is connected to mines with conditions as described by Amnesty International.”

Exclusive UK offer

In the UK, Fairphone 2 is exclusively available through the Phone Co-op. You can buy it outright for £440, or through a contract from £25 a month. There is also an affiliate scheme whereby 6% of your monthly spend will be donated to Ethical Consumer if you go to www.thephone.coop/ethicalconsumer or call 01608 434000 and quote ‘Ethical Consumer’.

Visit the Fairphone website for loads more information about Fairphone’s goals and how they work.

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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