Help me pick an ethically-manufactured laptop.
January 27, 2012 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Help me pick an ethically-manufactured laptop.

I'm long overdue for a new laptop. However, I don't want to invest in anything with a dubious social and environmental manufacturing history.
Ideally, I'd like a powerful machine made by a company that's been transparently fair to its workers and mindful of their rights. Preferably without dumping tons of hazardous waste into the environment in the process.

Am I dreaming? Or can I find such a thing?

Help me, hive mind.
posted by delight to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, I think you're dreaming. However, most manufacturers have green certifications, and Apple goes out of their way on environmental issues.

That said, the best way may be to buy a laptop that you like, and donate some extra money that you would have been willing to spend to a charity or organization that supports workers or the environment.
posted by Pants! at 9:30 PM on January 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

You can't have one. See Foxconn.
posted by sanka at 9:32 PM on January 27, 2012

Yeah, no such thing as far as I know. Sorry, I totally know where you're coming from.
posted by troublesome at 9:38 PM on January 27, 2012

Greenpeace do a guide to greener electronics, however it's primarily focused on enviromental rather than social impact. Ethical Consumer have a guide, but I think you have to be a subscriber for the full version and it;s UK leaning. I got those both from here, so it's possible things may have moved on since then or that there might be new guides. With the current focus on blood gadgets it woud certainly be good if we could do more than collectively shrug.
posted by Artw at 9:41 PM on January 27, 2012

It would pretty much have to be coltan-free, which is very unlikely for most modern electronics. I'm not aware of a current manufacturer who uses no coltan in their capacitors.
posted by bonehead at 9:42 PM on January 27, 2012

What if you bought a used laptop from a local refurbisher? You can still get a fairly powerful one that way. At least then, a significant part of the purchase price (the value added by the refurbisher) would be staying local, at a place that you could probably verify. And arguably you wouldn't be causing any new parts to be manufactured in Foxconn's dark satanic mills; the parts have mostly already been manufactured, and you'd be keeping them out of the waste stream longer.

Not sure that it's going to be remotely possible to get an ethically-sourced laptop all the way down the supply chain. It's going to be a matter of choosing how many of the dollars you're going to spend are going to be on Foxconn-ish parts and how many are on assembly and other value-add done in the developed world.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:48 PM on January 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

Hello delight. I understand your concern. Though I knew about the issues at Foxconn, it was definitely driven home when I listened to Mike Daisey Goes To The Apple Factory from This American Life. Currently, the way the world economy is driven, it is damn near impossible to get hardware that is 100% responsibly created/workers humanely treated/environmentally sound. But that doesn't mean it will stay this way. One of the things that we as consumers need to do in order to really get the ball rolling in terms of workers rights/environmental impact is to stop wanting the latest and greatest as quickly as possible. The quick turnaround tech fetish that we have means that the latest and greatest phone that you just bought is obsolete as soon as you purchased it. The upgrades between the device versions can be so minute (e.g. the ASUS Transformer Prime version 1 and version 2...literally less than a month apart between the release for sale for the first version and debut of the second version at CES 2012. Difference? 1080p screen resolution. WOW. /sarcasm).

When the demand for tech toys is reduced, there won't be a reason for the workers to work so many hours to make the deliveries, and less materials will be consumed/thrown away as a result.

That being said, I always believe in taking small steps. One of the best ways to keep tech trash small is to buy someone else's second hand machines. Not only does this keep tech items away from landfills, you slightly reduce the order amount, and slightly lessen the workload of the assembly lines. Granted, the reduction may be negligible, but when larger number of people do the same thing, the effect may become more noticeable. When the ASUS Transformer Prime came out in December 2011, so many people ditched their old Transformer and bought the new Prime. On a side note, the Prime turned out to have antenna reception issues because of the metallic body acting like a Faraday cage. Once again, the latest and greatest is not necessarily the best. I ended up snagging the original ASUS Transformer and its keyboard dock (sold separately) from Craigslist for over 60% below retail than when the item first came out in early 2011.

The risk you take buying anything second hand (with exceptions to purchasing refurbished items from a dealer) is of course the lack of warranty. The nice thing about Craigslist is that you can meet someone local and evaluate the item before forking over the cash. Also, by purchasing locally, you are reducing the use of oil and emission that is needed to get your product from places further away. During my purchase evaluation, I made sure the tablet turns on, can connect to a wireless network, the applications are responsive, etc. If you do go the Craigslist route, do bring a trusted friend with you for a second opinion. Purchasing from owners is as much an assessment of the person as well as the product in question.
posted by vnvlain at 10:17 PM on January 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't think that any are great - the Ethical Consumer scores out of 20, and no laptop got more than 10. Archos, ASUS and MESH rated the highest combined scores against Environment, People, Animals, Politics, and Product Sustainability.

Yes, you could go secondhand as described above. You could look to upgrade your current one in some way (eg more memory, bigger drive), but yes, at some point that runs out as an option.

You can make sure that your laptop goes to good use, as per suggestions in this Guardian article, such as breaking down your laptop into components to sell or recycle

Make sure when you do buy a new one that you think about buying a higher spec one, so that it will last you longer as technology moves along.
posted by AnnaRat at 10:49 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buy a netbook and donate to charity.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:02 PM on January 27, 2012

For a start, you're not going to invest in a laptop. You're going to incur a computing expense. Computers lose value incredibly quickly compared to almost any other consumer "durable". And there's no avoiding the fact that most of the value in every computer on the planet was added in one or more Chinese industrial sweatshops.

So the best computer you can possibly acquire from an ethical and environmental point of view is a second-hand one. I have seen second-hand laptops less than three years old being offered for sale at bricks-and-mortar computer shops for AU$250. With patience and careful shopping, you should be able to spend not much on something that was bleeding-edge three years ago; put a new battery in it and you'll be good to go.
posted by flabdablet at 11:14 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Previously, previously, short answer: dreaming, sadly.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:19 AM on January 28, 2012

Can I suggest two things, as per others, buy secondhand to reduce the manufacturing demand by one, then offset the purchase by charitable donations to organisations that best support what you're trying to do here.

It's a modern consumer good with a low markup, it's going to hurt someone, somewhere regardless. Offset, offset, offset is the only reasonable uh, offset.
posted by fluffypancakes at 4:54 AM on January 28, 2012

The greenest device (other than the one you don't buy) is one you buy used, or if you buy it new, one you make as long as possible.

There is no such thing as an ethically manufactured piece of consumer electronics.
posted by spitbull at 6:34 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

One can argue there is no such thing as ethical consumption. What I suspect is that you want something that will meet your standard to a measure enough that you won't feel guilty about whatever you want to feel guilty about. This is a nice luxury many of us in the developed world with relatively fat incomes can indulge in. While a Foxcomm worker doesn't enjoy the benefits of a UAW worker in a GM plant, our collective desire for all manner of electronic geegaws and beyond has contributed to a tremendous uplift of people from a peasant farming existence to modern technological global market, an opportunity that has clearly been preferred by millions, allowing even the lowest of factory workers access to amenities available no nobody even a century ago. The luxuries we buy in the West mean more economic advancement for folks all along the supply chain, and have turned out to be perhaps the most effective anti poverty program Asia has ever seen.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd get a second-hand Thinkpad. They can actually be a pretty good deal and no money goes directly to any manufacturer.
posted by Orchestra at 11:10 AM on January 28, 2012

I still think that buying secondhand is better all around, but I did stumble onto "Union Built PC" which apparently assembles computers here in the U.S. from foreign components. They seem to exist mostly to supply unions with IT assets but sell to the public.

Exactly how much of the purchase price of a machine is the sweatshop-manufactured parts cost, and how much is the union assembly, I'm not sure. I suspect there's probably a higher assembly component on a desktop than a laptop. I guess if you absolutely must have a new machine it's probably better than one of the major suppliers that do everything in Asia, but I'm not sure by how much really.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:59 AM on January 28, 2012

Make noise to the companies and then find something you CAN do -- buy the laptop you were going to do, and take a good look at the rest of your life? (e.g., many people can stop buying chocolate that's made by child slave labor -- that's much more doable at the moment, depending on where people live.)

I really think people are kind of fixating on this as though it's the only thing wrong in the world just because it's in the news right now. (I don't want us to stop looking for alternatives or putting pressure on companies, but I do want people to think, you know, what about the computers in my cars? What about my flatscreen and consoles? Where does my jewelry come from? Why is my produce so cheap? [stop kidding yourselves, Americans, it is.] Etc.)
posted by wintersweet at 2:08 PM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Orchestra wrote: I'd get a second-hand Thinkpad. They can actually be a pretty good deal and no money goes directly to any manufacturer

Seconded. Look for one that is still in warranty, so you can make them fix it if the keyboard is cruddy or the fan craps out or whatever. You can pay to extend the warranty out to 5 years. You can actually buy warranty coverage on an out of warranty Thinkpad, but it's 50% more expensive than doing it while it still has a warranty in effect.
posted by wierdo at 2:22 PM on January 28, 2012

Falcon Northwest makes all their systems by hand in America, including the laptops.
posted by hellojed at 4:06 PM on January 28, 2012

If you're in the US, you might take a look at ZaReason. The components of their computers are all manufactured in China, but they're assembled in California, and they seem to at least try to be ethical. There's a response by them to a customer question about ethical manufacturing here. The same blogger discusses the issue and mentions some sources of information here. (Some of these sources might be useful if they've since been updated.)

Please note, all of their computers come with Ubuntu pre-installed. (You can opt for another Linux distribution if you want, but not Windows). If you want Windows 7, and I assume you do, you will have to install it yourself or get someone to install it for you, and you'll have to pay the license fee. I'd assume Windows 7 will run on all of their computers except maybe their cheapest laptops, but if you decide to go this route, you should check the specs first to make sure there isn't a compatibility issue.

Apparently it's basically the same deal with System 76 and Eight Virtues; they're small computer manufacturers in the US that assemble computers from components manufactured in Asia. In all cases you'd have to install Windows yourself if you wanted it.

ZaReason has an excellent reputation in Linux-land both for the quality of their computers and their customer service, System 76 also has good reputation, but I've seen more mixed reviews about their customer service (not bad, but sometimes slow). I know absolutely nothing about Eight Virtues: I just came across their name when looking for info about the other two companies.

I just happen to know about ZaReason and System 76 because I'm a Linux user. There are probably some other small manufacturers like that.

I agree with the other commenters that a used or rebuilt laptop is probably the best option, but this something else you can look at.
posted by nangar at 5:37 PM on January 28, 2012

(Declaration of interest: I work for a non-profit that refurbishes computers).

Modern laptops are all made by the same few companies based in Asia, even the companies that assemble their own use the same components. I'm obviously biased here but refurbished is the way to go, especially from non-profits who we likely providing other benefits than just refurbishing and taking good care to make sure that waste gets responsibly recycled (the electronics recyling industry has plenty of problems of its own). We even provide warranties and free tech support.

Here is a lists of links from our wiki that points to some organizations that do refurbishing around the US (and world).
posted by tallus at 12:12 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is unethical (and stupid) to play the keeping up with the Joneses game. Pretend everyone you know has a worse machine than yours; do you still need to go out and get another machine, or does your current machine make you feel just fine? The longer you wait between purchases, the less unethical you are in this regard. Continue to use the current machine as long as possible.

When you do have to buy another machine, remember that buying a used one is also unethical -- your purchase of a used machine just encourages the seller to take your cash and buy another new machine -- but used is better than new.
posted by pracowity at 2:47 AM on January 29, 2012

« Older Make mine Makgeolli   |   Is this from a movie? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.