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Shopping Tips for Cell Phones

The issues

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.

GoodGuide recommends

  • 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.

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