Shopping Tips for Cell Phones
Most consumers select cell phones based on features and pay relatively little attention to the environmental and social impacts associated with their production and use. But these impacts are significant and are similar to those associated with the entire consumer electronics sector. They include impacts associated with the energy use needed to power devices, material selection and sourcing of raw materials, working conditions in assembly plants, and end-of-life device management.
Note that the science is still out on whether cell phone usage creates a health risk, so GoodGuide does not assign a health score to different products. If you prefer to take precautions, we make it easy to select phones that exhibit the lowest Radio Frequency emissions (as measured by their Specific Absorption Rate). You can also reduce exposure by using a headset or speaker and not wearing a phone on your body.
What to look for
- Phones with positive environmental features (e.g., four or five star rated chargers, free of brominated fire retardants or PVC) or phones that have been certified by telcom carriers as meeting green standards, such as Sprint’s Eco-logo.
- Phones from manufacturers that have good Social scores, indicating they are working with their supply chain to ensure production workers are treated fairly.
What to avoid
- Avoid products that lack any information about their environmental attributes — this is a signal the manufacturer is not focused on improving the environmental performance of their operations and products. Only a small fraction of the cell phones on the market today promote any environmental feature whatsoever.
- Be skeptical about manufacturer claims that they offer Energy Star certified chargers (this program for cell phone chargers recently ended), or chargers that simply say they’re “efficient” with no supporting information.
- Raising environmental or social issues when shopping for a phone. Too many manufacturers believe consumers do not care about these attributes, and do not integrate performance improvement into their operations.
- Patronize manufacturers that disclose information about their product’s environmental or social features.
- Unplug your chargers when not in use, and look for chargers that disclose the efficiency of their chargers. Good chargers consume <0.15 W (<150 mW), while the best consume <0.03 W (<30 mW).
- If you want to take precautions to reduce the amount of radiation exposure associated with cell phone usage, select phones that a) disclose a SAR value and b) have the lowest SAR values. Products with SAR <0.72 W/kg were found to be in the top 20% of products we examined. You can also reduce exposure by using a headset or speaker and not wearing a phone on your body.
Our scientists have rated 707 Cell Phones products
Our highest rated cell phones have energy efficient chargers and are made of environmentally-preferable materials. They are made by companies that are implementing green production practices and takeback recycling programs and taking steps to ensure their supply chains treat workers fairly and avoid conflict minerals. The lowest rated cell phones have no ascertainable environmental features and are made by companies that are not focused on reducing their environmental and social impacts. Read More
Scoring Cell Phones
Environment scores are assigned to cell phones by combining product-level environmental indicators (weighted at 50%) with company-level environmental indicators (weighted at 50%).
The product-level environmental assessment is based on indicators of
- Energy management, as measured by a phone’s standby power consumption;
- Materials management, specifically the use of eco-materials in a phone or its packaging;
- Toxic waste, specifically inclusion of polyvinyl chloride or brominated flame retardants in a phone;
- Product management, as measured by third-party certification standards; and
- Environmental disclosure, as measured by the availability of an environmental fact sheet for a product.
The company-level environmental assessment is based on GoodGuide’s standard indicators for rating companies, enhanced with two additional indicators that capture issues that are specific to the electronics industry, covering
- Green production practices, including the precautionary principle and reduced reliance on hazardous substances, and
- Extended producer responsibility, as measured by a company’s takeback recycling program.
Company-level environmental scores consist of 50% standard company indicators and 50% enhanced company indicators.
Social scores are assigned to the manufacturers of cell phones by enhancing GoodGuide’s standard indicators of corporate social performance with one additional indicator that captures issues that are specific to the electronics industry, covering
- Supply chain responsibility, specifically whether minerals used in a phone are sourced from conflict areas.
Company-level social scores consist of 75% standard company indicators and 25% enhanced company indicators.
*Health scores are not assigned to cell phones. While there is a growing concern that extensive cell phone use possibly causes cancer, there is no scientific basis for assigning different Health scores to cell phones based on their reported radiation levels. All products rated by GoodGuide comply with the current FCC standard governing electromagnetic field radiation. For users that want to take precautions and limit their radiation exposure, GoodGuide provides filters that make it easy to identify the phones with the lowest radiation profile.
Environmental Scoring Methodology
Scoring cell phones and phone manufacturers on environmental performance is difficult because few companies disclose information about their production practices or phone attributes. Reviewing manufacturer websites, GoodGuide determined that no environmental claims are made for over 90% of the phones on the market.
GoodGuide was able to identify five product-level attributes that could be used evaluate the relative environmental performance of cell phones:
Charger standby power: According to industry studies, the efficiency of your cell phone charger under no load conditions (i.e., when the charger is plugged in but your phone isn’t), significantly impacts how much energy your mobile device consumes over its lifetime. Major manufacturers have developed a voluntary standard to communicate the efficiency of any given cell phone charger. Products that disclose their charger’s no-load energy consumption are scored using this criterion and receive higher scores for lower energy use.
BFR/PVC free claims: Most cell phone manufacturers are transitioning away from potentially hazardous materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Phones with a product-level claim of “BFR-and/or PVC-free” receive positive credit.
‘Eco’ Materials in phone and/or packaging: Several phones that are marketed as green feature a plastic housing made from recycled or bio-based plastic content. Similarly, green claims for the phone’s packaging materials can vary significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Credit for this criterion is provided based on any product-specific claim of environmentally preferred materials used in the phone or the packaging.
Carrier environmental standard: In the absence of a recognized standard defining ‘green’ phones, some cell phone carriers, such as Sprint, have developed their own multi-attribute standards to educate consumers about the environmental performance of different handsets. Phones that have been certified as complying with a carrier’s environmental standards receive positive credit.
Product environmental fact sheet: Environmental information about most cell phone products are limited and not easily available for comparison and synthesis. Products that have a standalone ‘Eco-declaration’, product ‘environmental report’, or similar source for this information receive positive credit.
GoodGuide identified two company-level attributes that could be used to enhance our standard rating of
company environmental performance:
Green production practices: Electronics manufacturers must address a number of sector-specific issues to reduce major environmental impacts from their production practices and product design decisions, including chemical management, e-waste and energy. To track company performance on these issues, GoodGuide relies on multi-attribute company rankings developed by Greenpeace in its Guide to Greener Electronics. Five criteria were identified that characterize company performance on each of these topics and scored on a 0-3 scale. An aggregate score was calculated for each company and then standardized to create a summary score indicative of the relative performance of each electronics company that manufactures cell phones.
Extended producer responsibility: Manufacturers must also address unique issues created by rapid product turn-over in the electronics sector. To track company performance on these issues, GoodGuide relies on multi-attribute company rankings developed by The Electronics TakeBack Coalition in its Recycling Scorecard. This scorecard uses 18 different criteria to evaluate domestic take-back recycling programs based on information disclosed on manufacturer websites. Broadly, these criteria address the scope of take-back recycling programs (are they free, convenient and generating significant
collection volumes?); whether the programs provide for responsible recycling (are old products being handled correctly and not exported to developing nations or sent to prison recycling shops?); and whether a company supports federal and state public policy initiatives regarding take-back. The scorecard assigns letter grades based on a points system. In order to capture differences between companies with similar grades, GoodGuide used standardized numerical scores to characterize a company’s performance on extended producer responsibility.
Social Scoring Methodology
GoodGuide identified one company-level indicator that could be used to enhance our standard rating of company social performance:
Conflict minerals / Supply chain responsibility: A significant portion of a cell phone manufacturer’s social impact is associated with how it sources the specialty minerals needed to produce key electronics components. Minerals like cassiterite (which contains the tin used to solder circuit boards), coltan (which contains the tantalum used in capacitors), tungsten and gold may be sourced from conflict areas (most notably eastern Congo). Trade in these conflict minerals may provide financing for exploitative behavior including rebel groups, militias and criminal networks. Beginning in 2012, companies will be required to file a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission and disclose publicly whether the minerals used in their products originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or adjoining countries.
Manufacturers differ significantly in the policies and procedures they utilize to control the social impacts associated with their mineral supply chains. To characterize company performance on these issues, GoodGuide relies on company rankings developed by the Enough Project in its Getting Conflict Free Report. This report examined company policies and practices regarding traceability (has the company traced its suppliers of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold), auditing (does the company audit its supply chain to verify mineral sources), certification (has the company contributed to the development of an international certification regime for mineral sourcing), stakeholder engagement (does the company engage with NGOs about conflict minerals) and public policy (has the company supported legislation on conflict minerals). Companies that are leading industry efforts to address conflict minerals score higher than those taking limited action or those that refuse to acknowledge or deal with the problem.
Note that the conflict mineral score does not indicate whether a specific company’s cell phones contain or do not contain conflict minerals. Manufacturers do not generally disclose the source of raw materials used in their phones, and some even lack the tracing capacity to know the sources themselves. In response to NGO advocacy campaigns focused on conflict minerals and in anticipation of upcoming disclosure requirements, manufacturers are working with suppliers to source from smelters that do not use minerals from Central Africa. Since electronics manufacturers all rely on the same supply chains, few phones will eventually contain conflict minerals from Central Africa. Our scoring system rewards companies that have led the way towards resolving these issues and have built supply chain systems that will prevent similar problems in the future.
Note: Health Scores
All cell phones emit radio frequency (RF) energy when used. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set a standard that limits the amount of energy absorbed by the body as a result of these emissions from a cell phone. This standard, called the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), is 1.6 W/kg. All products rated by GoodGuide comply with this current FCC standard. There is an ongoing public debate about whether the FCC standard provides adequate protection against any non-thermal effects of RF emissions. In June 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that there is limited evidence of an association between mobile phone use and glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, and recommended taking pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices.