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March 7, 2008 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as a fair trade computer?

My wife and I have been trying to spend our money as ethically (by our standards) as we can lately. We decided that, while we don't have much money relative to most of the people around us, we still have quite a bit compared to most people around the world. We can afford to support companies that use fairly traded, sweatshop-free materials and labor. While I know it's best in the short-term to buy used, it's also nice to support good business practices. I think we're doing pretty well with regard to buying clothes, chocolate, and coffee (goods with lots of info available), but I have no clue how to go about buying electronics, specifically a computer.

This came up when I was looking at a new Asus EEE pc, if that makes any difference. I'm also really concerned far more with people than with trees, though if you've got an organic, all-natural laptop to sell me I'm all ears. I realize that not all factories building computer parts are full of one-armed 8-year-olds working 20 hour days, but I also know that some countries aren't very transparent to the rest of the world about their labor practices. Is the XO-1 from OLPC, for example, built with this thing in mind, or are poor people just going to benefit from really poor people building their machines? I apologize if I'm way off the mark with some of my thinking, here. It's all pretty new stuff to me.
posted by monkeymadness to Shopping (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
So, if I understand correctly, you don't think that buying used is a good decision in the long term? Why not?
posted by box at 12:53 PM on March 7, 2008

Response by poster: Buying used is good in the sense that my money doesn't go to anyone doing bad stuff (depending on the guy from Craigslist), but buying new is supporting good stuff. Does that make sense?
posted by monkeymadness at 12:57 PM on March 7, 2008

Hmm. Yeah, though I think we might have some minor disagreements about what's good and bad. But let's just take that used computer off the table and move on.

Since you mention an Eee, it might be worth considering the Nokia internet appliances. While I don't know anything about their manufacturing, Nokia has a pretty good ethical-corporation rep otherwise. Not perfect, but better than some.
posted by box at 1:04 PM on March 7, 2008

Best answer: Since many of the organizations that one would expect to be gathering this kind of information (greenpeace et al) seem to be more concerned with grabbing headlines and advancing larger political agendas it's pretty hard to get any real reliable data on how various components are being manufactured and assembled for most modern computers.
Also, while the long and often quite complex supply chains used in modern computer manufacturing do lead to a lot of increased efficiency via competition for the sourcing of individual components and assemblies it also means that for any given model of computer the source for each component could change several times over the course of a production run. So while you might find out that say the capacitors in the power supply of the machine you are buying were from an environmentally and ethically sound firm in November, by December they were being sourced from a company using slave labor and dumping mercury into the water table. Participating in the global economy is a tricky business. I'd have to say that your best bet might be just buying a machine that best suits your needs and then trying a way to offset the potential built-in harm via some manner of charitable donation.
posted by frieze at 1:06 PM on March 7, 2008

Best answer: In the long run, it doesn't really matter, pretty much all computers are made in a handful of factories in China.

The XO-1, for example, is made by Quanta, who manufactures laptops for Apple, Dell, HP, and pretty much every other major computer brand. Quanta Computer on Wikipedia.
posted by Oktober at 1:08 PM on March 7, 2008

Response by poster: Box, I'm all for having my mind changed. Like I said, I'm learning. Please email me (in profile) to avoid the inevitable derail. I've looked at the Nokias (built in Romania, right?) but the form factor isn't suited to my normal computer use. I almost got a 770 and a portable keyboard, but the screen is just too small.
posted by monkeymadness at 1:10 PM on March 7, 2008

The XO is supposedly the worlds "greenest" computer (according to a talk I saw by one of its advisors), but of course that doesn't say anything about the conditions under which it is manufactured.

The supply tree for all of the parts that go into a computer is vastly more complicated than coffee, clothes, or chocolate, and there seems to be no awareness or demand for "fair trade" in the electronics industry, excepting the occaisional sensational headline about iPod sweatshops. The best way to minimize the "ethical footprint" for a new computer would be to research the companies that build individual components and then assemble the computer yourself... which is a lot of work.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:04 PM on March 7, 2008

Response by poster: As I expected, the consensus here seems to be that nobody is 'perfect', but do some companies come closer than others? If the basic parts aren't necessarily made under the best conditions, are there companies that at least do the assembly under verifiably good conditions? Of course, I'm only worried about laptops/other gear and not desktops, since I can always build my own one of those, (he says optimistically), or have it built.
posted by monkeymadness at 2:28 PM on March 7, 2008

Response by poster: ...And is there ever going to be a way to get a XO-1, outside of ebay, since the G1G1 program is over? The market driven scarcity-tax on these is pretty high right now.
posted by monkeymadness at 2:33 PM on March 7, 2008

Oh hell, I wish there was. This is a topic of some interest to me.

The best thing we have right now is something called the EPEAT certification standard. It works kind of the same way that LEED certification works for buildings. It was developed by the EPA and an industry-led association called the Green Electronics Council. US Government purchases have to be EPEAT certified. If you care to dig into the standard, you will find that it addresses a broad spectrum of green issues including energy consumption, take-back at end of life, reduction of hazardous materials, and so on.

It is an open question how green a computer can really get and I really think the answer is "not very", at least not unless things radically change. (I am hoping to do graduate research in this topic by the way). My intuition is that the eeePC and the XO are the best ones to date. But according to EPEAT, here is the list of gold-certified notebooks, and there are plenty, including the XO. (the eeePC is not registered with this program, I don't know why). The fact that so many reach the highest standard may mean that the standard is not tough enough. I think the XO has a lot of features - such as modular design allowing for easy field repairs - that put it above the rest. But how much does that matter in the grand scheme, when it still has the same chips inside it? Hard to say.

As far as the labor issues, others have already mentioned it. As far as I know, you will not be able to purchase a computer that is not made and assembled in large-scale factories in southeast Asia. The industry is far too globalized and consolidated and cut-throat to support all but a few gigantic shops. One company, Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn, does something like half of the world's electronics manufacturing in its shop in Shenzhen, China. You've probably never heard of them, but Apple and Dell and HP and everybody else all contract out all of their manufacturing to Hon Hai and other companies like it.

Another standard for you to look at is GreenPeace's Green Electronics List which ranks the major companies according to the toxic materials inside their computers. In terms of environmental justice this is probably a good indicator because it tells you who is more or less likely to be exposing their workers to toxins. Though again I suspect they are all pretty much the same.

Anyway hope this helps. I have more information than most are likely to on this topic but I still feel like I'm blundering in the dark, so I would advise you not to listen to anyone who gives you a definitive answer and just do the best you can. Oh, and buy used. :)
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:09 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh and more things come to mind.
There is a group in Ireland called "I am Eco" that has been researching ways to make computers more green. The product they have come up with involves really beautiful wooden cases that unfortunately cost a lot amount of money; plus on the inside they still have the same chips inside. Still they are a step up from the metal/plastic case.

By the way, I have looked into life cycle analysis of computers and the conclusion I found was that most of the environmental impact happens during manufacturing. Making all those chips is energy and chemically intensive. The energy costs of operation over the lifetime of the device are considerably smaller. There is also an impact at end-of-life, when the computer is recycled (hopefully) or dumped to landfill (hopefully not). With very old computers you could make an argument that it is better to buy a modern computer because modern computers tend to be more power-efficient. But I expect the best option from an environmental standpoint is to get a used computer that is no more than five years old - the newer the better.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:22 PM on March 7, 2008

One argument that hasn't been put forth yet is that if there's no computer manufacturer that's significantly more green than any other, the next best thing may be using a computer with very low electricity consumption. The Eee fits that bill well. (How about an Eee plus a solar panel?)
posted by sparrows at 10:55 PM on March 7, 2008

Response by poster: Keep in mind I'm looking for fair labor practices, not green, but I do appreciate the input. Thanks, all. I'll most likely get an EEE unless I can get a used ultraportable even cheaper, or the Give1Get1 program is reactivated.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:39 AM on March 8, 2008

Give1Get1 will be reactiviated last summer/early fall.
posted by sethwoodworth at 11:39 PM on May 29, 2008

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