How we are changing the way we rate sustainability of consumer electronics

Under the new criteria, products will lose marks if they do not meet a certain threshold for progress

When we first started looking at the sustainability of consumer electronics at the beginning of 2019, we soon discovered that reliable information was very hard to find. It was difficult to establish which smartphones, tablets, headphones and other items were even capable of being repaired, let alone how long they might last or whether they contained recycled materials.

The status quo was very much “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Upon asking, very few manufacturers even had records of the relevant information. Fewer still made it available for public consumption.

So at the start of 2020, to try to create change for the better, we began including sustainability information alongside product performance for all our standalone consumer technology reviews. We looked at repairability, the battery lifespan and ease of replacement, the software lifecycle, its material construction and the availability of trade-in and recycling schemes.

The aim was to give readers a fuller picture of the product so they could weigh what was most important to them and make an informed decision.

Products from manufacturers that were making good progress on any of the sustainability fronts were awarded bonus marks as a way of highlighting them above competitors, with the Fairphone 3+ a prime example: a reasonable smartphone made exceptional by its ease of repair, inclusion of recycled materials and ethical manufacturing.

Blood out of a stone

Samsung Galaxy Buds Live
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live are repairable, the battery can be changed and they contain recycled materials, but discovering that is not straightforward. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

At the start, retrieving information from of the various product manufacturers was like getting blood out of a stone. Even after weeks of arguing and delays, it could often turn out that they were indeed making progress, seeking to include recycled materials, make the products more repairable and sustainable. They just didn’t want to tell anyone.

For many manufacturers, doing good things in the background that are financially viable is far less risky than going on the record when things in the supply chain can change and put them in difficult positions. Technology firms would often rather stay silent than confirm or deny anything.

It is still hard to find the required information to make an informed decision on how sustainable a product truly is, but after a year of pressure from the Guardian we are making progress. Apple has been publishing environmental impact assessments for its main products for a few years – it still disappointingly does not for accessories, which include AirPods and other high-volume items – but now others are joining suit. Google recently began publishing similar breakdowns, as did Microsoft.

Manufacturers are making use of recycled materials too. Google’s pledge to include recycled material in all its products by 2030 has already resulted in recycled plastic and metal making it into its phones and speakers, while Amazon’s new Echo speakers include significant amounts. Many of the best high-volume items such as smartphones are more repairable than ever, even if it means using specialist tools that ultimately requires the manufacturer to carry out the fix rather than the owner or a third-party.

Even in challenging categories such as true wireless earbuds, there is movement to make them less disposable. The batteries in Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live earbuds can be replaced and they contain post-consumer recycled plastic.

Good cop becomes bad cop

Fairphone 3+
The Fairphone 3+ is one of the most repairable, sustainable and ethical smartphones you can buy, but isn’t as feature-rich as its rivals. Photograph: Fairphone

But these are just baby steps and there is a long way to go. So starting from January 2021, our assessment criteria for sustainability will be flipped from positive to negative. If a product does not meet a certain threshold for progress on the sustainability front it will lose marks, meaning that rather than the good products being awarded more, the bad products will be marked down.

Based on 2020’s performance, that will undoubtedly see a large range of products from both small and big companies being marked down. The Guardian operates a five-star rating scheme, so expect to see many more three and four-star products that, despite being excellent on most fronts, are not good on sustainability.

Equally, those products that exist purely to be sustainable also have to be good for other reasons – it’s not enough any more to make a repairable, sustainable device if it doesn’t work very well in the first place.

The sustainability of the products we buy and use has never been more important, not just for the planet but for our cash-strapped wallets. Products that are great now and will go the distance for years to come are better for everyone. I hope the Guardian’s consumer technology reviews are useful in guiding you to that end.


Samuel Gibbs Consumer technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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