A Gadget Lover’s Introduction to the Ethics of Tech

Research your next tech purchase – phone, laptop, TV – and it quickly becomes clear that your choice is between what’s best for performance and what’s best for people and the planet. It’s like someone has taken the top tens and ‘best of’ lists used by tech magazines and blogs and cruelly flipped them round. For gadget lovers and early adopters trying not to ruin the world, it can be disheartening to say the least. Can we have it all?

Consumer tech companies have many goals – be first, be best, sell most. But often the impact on workers, the environment and even their own customers is way down the list of considerations for CEOs, designers, engineers and shareholders.

Poor or non-existent environmental reporting, use of conflict minerals, tax avoidance, unsafe working conditions; the list goes on. Essentially, while some global companies such as Apple can boast that it tops the Greenpeace Clean Energy Index for running its operations on renewable energy, most tech brands, the iPhone maker included, will no doubt only satisfy some of your ethical and eco concerns, not all of them.

There’s also the problem that companies involved in very unethical practices such as Amazon can afford to produce very cheap and popular gadgets as just one part of its business model. Why would anyone pay more for an inferior product when Amazon and Google are flogging great tech for low prices?

Everyone needs a phone

Everyone needs a phone and the shining light in this space is Fairphone. Launched off the back of a crowdfunding campaign, Fairphone is trying to build a 100% ethical device – as few conflict minerals (such as tin and tantalum) as possible with a goal of zero in the long run, full transparency in the supply chain, ease of repair, worker welfare funds, projects to collect scrap phones in Ghana. The small team making up the social enterprise in the Netherlands has published its entire road map to date on its website along with what to look for in the future.

Still very much a work in progress in terms of both hardware and the company’s operations, we are expecting the Fairphone 2 later this autumn. It will run on Android, though Fairphone is exploring ‘indie’ operating systems such as Sailfish OS and most importantly, we’d expect it to more closely match the specs of current smartphones.

The screen of the first Fairphone (which sold 60,000 units), in particular, was criticised by the reviewers at publications such as Wired for being too low resolution – basically too fuzzy – for the £250 price tag when a clearer screen is available, for instance, on a £150 Motorola Moto G. With smartphone innovation plateauing somewhat over the past 18-24 months, this has hopefully given Fairphone the chance to catch up in terms of securing components that offer good quality to the customer, in time for its second launch.

To give you an idea of the gap between Fairphone and other big names on the tech scene, in Ethical Consumer’s (admittedly slightly out of date but still largely relevant) December 2013 report into smartphones, Fairphone scored 15/20 in total with Doro, which makes basic feature phones, following it as the next highest with a score of 10/20. Acer scored 8, HTC, Apple and Sony scored 7 while Google Nexus, Nokia, Samsung, LG and Amazon all scored below 5/20 overall.

Many tech companies seem to be focusing on environmental issues more than human rights issues, perhaps because climate change has moved to a position of prominence in the global agenda in the past few years. When your tech’s impact on other people is your main concern, environmentally-forward thinking Apple seems, for the most part, to be performing just as badly as its competitors based on reports into its supply chain. Unfortunately, when looking for ethical technology it is something of a best of a bad bunch scenario.

Many tech companies seem to be focusing on environmental issues more than human rights issues.

Giants of the tech world

We chose the example of smartphones to start with as they are remain the must-have gadget of the decade and they tend to have a shorter life cycle than most other big buys. But since a handful of companies can now build every gadget and appliance our home would need, say Samsung, you’ll see that the story repeats itself across categories.

Take laptops. The ‘best’ in terms of performance and design are widely agreed by the tech press to be Apple’s MacBook Air and MacBook Pro lines.

Again, as of a December 2014 Ethical Consumer report, Apple is one of the safer options when looking for an ethical laptop, alongside Acer, Dell and HP. Competitors who fare badly include Samsung and Toshiba. This is largely for renewable energy and conflict minerals policy reasons, but the difference between the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ in the grand scheme of ethical purchasing isn’t as wide as you’d expect.

Phonebloks is a project working to develop modular technology and decrease tech waste.

It almost goes without saying but considering the millions of phones, tablets and computers that ship every year, often the best thing you can do to keep your purchases as ethical as possible is to buy second hand or refurbished. Simply, this extends the lifecycle of a product which has already made an impact on people and planet and that someone else has chosen to discard.

Unfortunately, when looking for ethical technology it is something of a best of a bad bunch scenario.

Be careful, though, as with obsolescence built in to many products this is only a useful tactic for you as an individual if the device is still fairly young in terms of use. For instance, it’s unlikely to be a good move to buy a recent phone from a big tech brand that has been used for 12-18 months or more. After this time, a whole host of problems are reported again and again – touchscreen problems, slow performance, crashes. The same estimate goes for tablets and laptops, which generally get more life before they break down. Just think carefully if the device is over two years old.

Does great quality perfectly ethical tech actually exist?

Can a product that’s best for you also be best for the planet and the people who built it? Sadly, the answer seems to be ‘not yet’. Even Fairphone has some way to go to creating products and practices that satisfy its target customers, treat its workers fairly, and make good business sense.

So gadget lovers, just remember – if you can’t live without the latest must-have device, sell or recycle your old one (if you live in the US you can use eCycle Best or eco-cell, and for UK tech users there’s envirofone and Tech Recycle), or give it to a family member or friend. If your phone or tablet breaks, get it fixed. Don’t just opt for an upgrade just because phone companies are offering it. Shout about built-in obsolescence on forums and social media. And make sure to get excited about sustainable, modular and repairable design in technology, because we need a future where things are designed to last, not to break and need replacing within a year or two.

So if you were wondering why you’re not seeing a whole lot of tech recommended in our ‘Desk’ products section, you now know why. We’re going to keep talking about these issues, and telling you about it when brands do step up and take on the challenge of making technology in a better way. And who knows, maybe seeing such a clear gap in the market will encourage growth in this area. By being a fan of A Better Place you are helping us to prove that there is a market for ethical products, so you’ve already begun to make a difference.

There are lessons for the technology industries to be taken from many types of ethical businesses. Within tech, individuals and companies regularly set themselves seemingly impossible, long term, futuristic tasks (nicknamed ‘moonshots’): Google providing internet access using balloons, Amazon delivering packages with drones, Virgin making space travel a reality.

These companies clearly do have the talent and the resources to transform their supply chains, workers rights transparency and energy policies if these were made real priorities. Maybe the next high profile, near impossible challenge could be sustainable and fair business. That’s the kind of moonshot we need now.


Author: Sophie Charara

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