Tablets and e-readers

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 18 tablets and e-reader brands.

We also look at conflict minerals, the use of tablets by children, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Huawei 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 tablet or e-reader:

  • Is the model independently certified? The TCO-Certified mark certifies brands in this sector for having higher environmental standards.

  • Is it second-hand or refurbished? A whole host of ethically troublesome materials and processes go into each and every tech device on the market. Buying second-hand or refurbished tablets will extend the life of these devices and reduce the negative impacts they have.

  • How are they rated by Greenpeace? Greenpeace USA publishes an annual ‘Guide to Green Electronics’. It’s a good idea to check how it has rated companies before purchasing a tablet. You can see how the companies rated in this guide below.

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

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a tablet:

  • Does the brand score badly for its conflict minerals policy? It is still the case that all of our tech requires minerals mined in some of the most unstable and war-torn places on the planet. Do not buy from companies that aren’t taking concrete steps to monitor and improve their mineral sourcing.

  • Does it score worse for supply chain management? Workers’ Rights abuses and socially destructive supply chains are commonplace in the tech world. Make sure that your tablet is made by a company that is tackling these issues downstream in their supply chain.

     

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)

Our Analysis

The first smartphone, IBM’s ‘Simon’, was launched in 1994 and it took 18 years before the Fairphone gave ethical consumers an ethical option. Will consumers have to wait as long before an ethically conscious tablet is produced? If you count Apple’s iPad as the first tablet, launched in 2010, we’d be waiting until 2028!

For now, consumers are stuck trying to distinguish between a number of ethically compromised brands, a task that this guide will help you with. It covers 15 of the largest tablet companies in the UK, focusing on the traditional ‘slate’ tablets that are sold without a detachable keyboard. After which we look at three e-reader brands in the UK.

The ethical dilemmas in the tablets market mirror those of mobile phones and laptops, with supply chains often riddled with conflict minerals, dangerous toxic chemicals and poor labour standards. As well as ethical issues arising from manufacture, this article will also consider the impact that tablets have on children’s development and discuss the shifting landscape of the tablet market.

tablet

The market

From the very beginning of the tablet age, Apple’s iPads have ruled the roost. Particularly in the UK where they account for over half of all tablets. Apple’s competitors have invested billions developing and marketing their own tablet devices and apps in an effort to challenge its dominance. But none of these have seriously threatened the iPad in the UK

Worldwide, the story is different. Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo and Amazon all boast healthy shares of the global tablet market. Apple still controls the lion’s share with 35% of the market. Which, in terms of ethics, isn’t such a bad thing, seeing as the iPad scores comparatively well in this guide.

Some competitors have simply given up. Tech giant Google is a prime example. Google began producing own-brand tablets in 2012 with the Nexus 7. At the time it was released it was smaller but significantly cheaper than the iPad. However, despite promising signs initially, glitches and poor functionality led to a consumer backlash. Google’s subsequent tablet models, the Nexus 9 and the Pixel C have never been able to win back consumer trust.

Google’s foray into own-brand tablets appears to be coming to an end. Its latest Android operating system ‘Android P’ will not be released for its tablets. This means that these devices will gradually slow down and reduce in functionality. For this reason, Google devices have not been included in this product guide.

It is also worth noting that both LG and Sony have not released their latest models in the UK, possibly because of Apple’s continued dominance.

Conflict minerals

All tablets contain the 3TGs (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold), minerals that are largely found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and surrounding countries. Profits from the sale of these minerals are the most significant financier of the armed conflicts that have plagued the country since the 1990s. This has made control of the mines that produce them an important military objective in itself.

According to research by the International Peace Information Service, 56% of mines have an armed presence from either the army or independent armed groups. This puts companies in a position of responsibility to ensure that their money is not finding its way into this conflict. On this front, there have been some signs of positive change.

In March 2017, MEPs voted in favour of forcing EU companies to take responsibility for the origin of the minerals they import. “Companies will be required to check their supply chain in order to respect human rights and prevent them from contributing to conflicts from 1st January 2021.” Importers will be required to publicly disclose their due diligence practices and policies on an annual basis.

This piece of legislation was inspired by the Dodd-Frank Act which has been in place in the US since 2010. Promisingly, a recent report on company compliance the Dodd-Frank Act found that over half of US companies reported whether their minerals came from the DRC or adjoining countries in 2017, up from under a third in 2014.

Moreover, in 2017, Apple pledged that it would treat cobalt as a conflict mineral. Cobalt is also mined in the DRC region and has often been linked to child labour and other human rights abuses. Apple’s action on cobalt mining has been welcomed by Amnesty International.

These positive changes are reflected in our table, with more companies receiving our best rating for conflict minerals; and both Samsung and Asus improving their score from a worst last time around to a best this time.

Student forced labour

Headlines about workers’ rights abuses in tech factories are depressingly frequent. So much so that it is easy to forget the individuals trapped in these abusive systems.

A recent investigative report by Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) gave voice to Chinese students who’d been forced into workplace ‘internships’ on the production lines of major tech company suppliers.

Image: electronics factory

SACOM found that student interns worked as much as 12 hours a day, sometimes overnight, without the standard labour protections afforded to regular workers. Shockingly, around half of the workforce at Quanta Computer’s Chongping factory were student interns. The report named Apple, Acer, HP and Sony as clients of Quanta.

One 18-year-old student said: “We were forced to come ... Every semester, our school recruits new students but our campus is small. When they don’t have enough space in the classrooms or dormitories, they force current students out to do internships and then let the new students stay in our dorms.”

Another 16-year-old intern said: “If we refused [to go on an internship], we would not be able to get our graduation certificates. Also, our dining and accommodation subsidies would be cancelled.”

Tech companies are regularly exposed for workers’ rights abuses such as this in their supply chains. Perhaps instances would be reduced if companies had clear and robust supply chain management processes which were transparently managed and regularly audited. But this is rarely the case.

Image: burning electronics
Boys burning electronic cables and other electrical components in order to melt off the plastic and reclaim the copper wiring. This burning in small fires releases toxic chemicals into the environment.

However, the toxic exposure in the use phase pales in comparison to the end of life phase. When thrown away, our gadgets often find their way to e-waste scrap heaps, which are predominantly in developing countries, most famously in West Africa. Once in these e-waste areas electronics are cannibalised for any sellable parts. To the extent that wires encased in PVC are burnt to retrieve the copper inside. Research has revealed “elevated concentrations of heavy metals, dioxins and other hazardous substances in the dust, air, soil, fresh water and sediments surrounding [e-waste] sites”.

Greenpeace has been pressuring tech companies to ditch these toxic substances. But, despite promises, “Acer, Dell, HP, LG, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony have all failed to fully follow through on commitments made circa 2009”.

Ethical Consumer expects companies to have clear cut-off dates for the use of these substances and transparent reporting on their use. Apple led the way on this front. Back in 2008, it phased PVC and BFRs out of its goods, its products are also free of phthalates. So, it is definitely possible. Apple’s iPad has been awarded a positive product sustainability mark because of this.

In this guide, only two companies were not marked down for their approach to toxic chemicals, these were Apple and Samsung. Four others, HP, Dell, Microsoft and Acer received a middle rating. The rest have been deducted a whole mark under our Pollution & Toxics category.

Tax avoidance

We have scored all companies on their likely use of tax avoidance strategies. Unfortunately, the vast majority scored worst by having two or more ‘high-risk’ subsidiary types in jurisdictions considered to be tax havens at the time of writing. Some had far more than this, Acer for example had 19 high-risk subsidiaries in Taiwan, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands. This number was dwarfed by HP which had at least 53 high-risk subsidiaries in jurisdictions on our tax havens list. Kurio and Archos were the only companies to avoid a worst rating.

Table: supply chain management table

Supply chain

Our supply chain management category is designed to weed out those companies who are yet to develop these processes. In our research eight companies received a worst rating, six scored middle, and one scored best (this was HP). This represents a significant improvement from the last time we looked at this market in 2016, with five companies improving their score from worst to middle.

This was largely owing to improved auditing and reporting, as well as proactive approaches to difficult issues such as ongoing training for staff around policy and procedures, and employees’ complaints hotlines that were free to use.

HP was the only company to score best for its supply chain management. The company demonstrated exemplary stakeholder engagement through its membership of Social Accountability International, a multi-stakeholder group focusing on workers’ rights, as well as with NGOs such as the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network. HP has also taken a lead on tackling student workers in China by issuing management guidance to all its suppliers.

Toxic chemicals

There are many chemicals that are used in electronics manufacture – in our ratings we focus on three of these brominated flame retardants: (BFRs), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and phthalates.
There are a number of different health problems with toxic chemicals. During production workers are exposed to carcinogens, and several studies have shown significantly elevated risk of lung, pharyngeal, nasal, breast, bladder, and brain cancers. They are also exposed to reproductive toxicants, which studies have shown to increase rates of spontaneous abortion and birth defects. As well as being released in the factories that assemble electronic goods, these compounds can be released during their use phase with toxic chemicals often found in household dust.

HP boycott update

Since 2014, we have been reporting on the boycott of technology giant Hewlett-Packard. The boycott began in response to the pivotal role HP’s technology and software had in the development of the ‘BASAL’ checkpoint system, used by Israel to control the movement of Palestinians.

However, since then, Hewlett-Packard has split into two separate companies. Perhaps in an attempt to clean its slate, the company separated its consumer goods business from its government and military supply services. The BDS movement’s website states that it is continuing its boycott of both HP companies, “Because the companies share facilitates, branding and supply chains, and collaborate in a wide range of ways, both remain deeply complicit with Israeli apartheid.”

The latest development in the boycott of HP came in June 2018 when the Students Federation of India (SFI), India’s largest student federation, passed a resolution backing the boycott. The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement estimates that this represents over $120 million in potential losses for HP.

Abdulrahman Abunahel from the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) responded to the news by saying:

“Palestinian students and youth movements deeply appreciate the solidarity expressed by our counterparts in the Students Federation of India. As a young Palestinian in Gaza, I know first-hand how difficult it is to study, and to simply live, under decades of Israel’s brutal military rule and devastating siege. And I’m heartened by this important gesture of support from India, which reaffirms that where governments fail, people have the power to act and make a difference.”

In response to the boycott, HP has stated that it is, “strongly committed to socially responsible business practices ... We abide by a strong human rights policy and adhere to the highest standards of human rights … It is not our policy to take sides in political disputes between countries or regions.”

Greenpeace guide to green electronics

If you are still thinking of buying a tablet, Greenpeace USA’s ‘Guide to Green Electronics’ is a useful resource. This report analyses and compares how 17 tech companies fare on their transparency, performance and advocacy efforts in three areas critical to putting the sector on a sustainable path: reduction of emissions through renewable energy, use of recycled materials, and elimination of hazardous chemicals.

It gives each company a score card, ranking them from A to F on each category. It also tracks the commitments each company has made and whether they have stuck to their word or not.
Of the companies in this guide, Apple, HP and Dell scored best and Amazon scored worst. 

Samsung is the second biggest maker of tablets behind Apple, but its manufacturing system heavily relies on fossil fuels. The company used more than 16,000 GWh of energy in 2016, with just 1% coming from renewables.

Image: greener guide greenpeace

Should children use tablets?

Children love tablets, we’ve probably all been amazed at one time or another when an infant picks up a tablet with more confidence and ability than most adults.

According to Ofcom, tablets are the second most used device amongst children (after TV). The sheer proliferation of these gadgets had led many parents to worry about how this increase in ‘screen time’ could affect their children during early-years development, both in terms of learning, but also inactivity and socialisation.

There has been a lot of research around the impact of TV ‘screen time’ on early-years development, and these studies have largely found that overuse is detrimental to learning. But there hasn’t been quite the same academic scrutiny on the use of tablets, largely because their use amongst pre-school children didn’t boom until around 2013.

As you can see in the infographic opposite, children’s use and ownership of tablets has rocketed. But it would be unwise to conflate the findings about TVs with tablet use. Unlike TVs, tablets are interactive and often require problem solving skills.

Infographic: Media Use and Attitudes Report
Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report

Some preliminary studies into tablets and children under 5 have concluded that responsible use of tablets has positive effects on levels of Math, literacy and science. Although other research has suggested that children struggled to transfer problem solving skills learnt on a screen into the real world. Moreover, it should be noted that there is a distinct lack of research surrounding the social and emotional effects of these devices, which have the potential to be significant.

Of course, the results of any research into this topic revolves heavily around the idea of regulated and responsible use. It feels highly unlikely that rates of maths, literacy and science would improve if a child uses their tablet solely for YouTube. On this topic, many parents have praised apps which are specially designed for children. Parents we spoke to all mentioned the CBeebies apps produced by the BBC. It was felt that these apps had good problem-solving elements which promoted interaction and active thinking.

Professor Lydia Plowman of the University of Edinburgh stresses that moderation and supervision are the key factors in promoting positive interactions between children and tablets. Supervision is especially important when children are using tablets that are connected to the internet.

Many parents fight daily battles against their children’s screen addictions. We spoke to Antony, father of three, about screen time and children. He said that, “screens are junk food for the mind, they are easy but you feel gross afterwards.”

In his experience tech devices are consumed passively by children, they don’t promote active play or imagination. He said that, “during active play the kids expend more energy and sleep better because of it. Whereas screens make them irritable.”

Some companies have produced child-friendly tablets that are designed to promote positive and easily supervised use. We chose to include one such brand, Kurio, in our guide to tablets. Kurio produces brightly coloured devices that are fitted with internet filters, time management tools and the ability to block apps. Unfortunately, Kurio do not score well against our ethical rating system, scoring worst for Supply Chain Management, Conflict Minerals, Toxic Chemicals, and Environmental Reporting.

There are other child-friendly tablets available with similar features, such as the LeapFrog, Dragon Touch and Fusion 5. Unfortunately, we have not had the time to include them in our company research.

E-readers

If you already have a tablet (see separate product guide to Tablets), we wouldn’t advise that you buy a separate e-reader. There is plenty of software available for both Apple and Android platforms that lets you read e-books on your device.

But, if you don’t have a tablet, here are some reasons why investing in a dedicated e-reader might be a good idea:

  • They can be lighter than a tablet or a book, yet store hundreds of books.
  • Most e-readers have an E-Ink screen which looks much like paper and is easier on the eyes than the colour LCD screen of a phone or tablet. It also won’t stop you going to sleep like the blue light emitted from an LCD screen can, so e-readers are better for late-night reading.
  • E-Ink screens excel in bright sunlight, which can cause reflections on the glossy screens of other mobile devices.
  • Most e-readers are around six inches and weigh around 200g, an ideal size and weight to comfortably hold for prolonged periods and carry around with you.
  • Battery life is also much better on dedicated e-readers compared to phones and tablets.
  • With Kindle e-readers you have to use Amazon’s online bookstore, while Kobo and Bookeen e-readers let you download content from other stores.

Paper vs. screens

Over the last two years, sales of eBooks have been falling in the UK. Consumers appear to be moving back to print books or choosing the increasingly popular audiobook. On the whole we see this as a positive trend for ethics.

Although e-readers negate the need for reams of paper being produced, on the whole this does not seem to justify the complex ethical dilemmas associated with the manufacturing of e-readers. Similar to other electronic devices, issues with conflict minerals, toxic chemicals and supply chain management are not being adequately addressed by the companies in this market, who score worst for all of them. Not to mention the fact that this market is dominated by Amazon, a company whose tax record and workers’ rights abuses are all too well known.

Alternatives to Amazon

Finding alternatives to Amazon in the markets it dominates, such as e-readers, can be tough. But other brands are out there. For e-readers we found two options, Bookeen and Kobo, both of which score better than Amazon’s Kindle.

We would recommend buying second-hand books from independent bookshops. However, if eBooks are your thing, you can either purchase a second-hand or refurbished e-reader, or read eBooks on a tablet if you already own one.

Company Profile: 

Huawei produces a wide range of electronic devices. Its phones and tablets have taken a big share of Western markets over the last five years. It was recently embroiled in a scandal in the US when the FBI, CIA and NSA accused it of spying for the Chinese government. However, these claims do not appear to have been substantiated.

Some have praised the company’s ownership structure as it is officially owned by its workers through an employee stock option plan. However, CEO and founder Ren Zhengfei retains veto power and, as such, Ethical Consumer did not consider to company to be a co-operative.

 
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.

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.
 

Start your 30 day trial today!

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. Subscribe today for a wealth of data at your fingertips.

We will take payment when you order, but you can cancel by phone or email within 30 days for a full no-questions-asked refund!

Start your 30 day trial today!