Two years ago, our consumer electronics reviews added a new criteria to be judged – how sustainable the latest device, laptop or tablet is. So have the tech giants made any progress? In some way, yes. But there is a long way to go.
More mainstream products now contain recycled material as major tech firms follow through with their sustainability pledges. For example, Apple’s full iPad line and the majority of its computers are now made of recycled aluminium, as are Google’s latest Pixel 6 smartphones. Most of Amazon’s own-brand devices contain recycled plastic, including the Fire HD 10 tablets and Echo devices, as do Microsoft’s Ocean Plastic Mouse and Logitech’s MX Keys Mini keyboard.
Most major technology firms offer device recycling, too, even if it is through third-parties and often only when you buy something new. Much more is needed if we are to reach a circular economy, including better recycling.
Much of the progress has been brought about by a combination of consumer awareness and investor pressure. Real change can happen in a consumer industry if people vote with their wallets.
Access to information on what goes into making a device, the length of software support and the repair options, is still limited but getting better for some things. Some of the biggest companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Google, publish environmental impact assessments, but not for all products and often with limited scope.
Software support improving
Apple still leads the pack for software support, with some iPhones receiving seven years or longer, but others are starting to catch up. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Keeping your device rather than needing to buy a new one is better for the planet and your wallet. Progress has been made on this front, too.
One of the biggest issues affecting the longevity of smartphones is the premature expiry of software support. The ending of crucial security updates renders perfectly serviceable devices unsafe to use. It is still very much a problem, with some companies offering as little as two to three years of updates from a device’s release, including big firms such as Oppo, particularly for cheaper models.
But with Samsung extending updates to at least four years for a range of phones, not only high-end models, and Google promising at least five years for its Pixel 6 phones, others are finally starting to catch up with Apple’s five to seven years of updates for its iPhones.
Repair and resell
The Fairphone 4 has a removable battery and modules that can be simply unscrewed and replaced if something breaks. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The repairability of consumer electronics is slowly improving too. Dutch firm Fairphone continues to set the standard with its latest modular phone that can be repaired at home with just a simple screwdriver, is made from ethically sourced and recycled materials, and will have six to seven years of software support. US startup Framework is trying something similar with modular, repairable laptops.
Now others are taking notice. Following pressure from the public and shareholders, Apple and Microsoft have recently expanded their efforts to make parts and tools for repairs available to the public.
“We are starting to see the pendulum swing in the right direction,” says Kyle Wiens, the chief executive of the repair specialists iFixit. “We’ve seen shifts from major manufacturers, such as Microsoft redesigning the Surface Laptop to make it easier to repair, jumping from a one to a five in our scoring system. But others, including Samsung, appear to have done very little, so we still have a long way to go.”
However, where the big tech firms are starting to tread, the cheaper end of the market is not yet following. “Inexpensive, disposable products are a real problem,” Wiens says.
Even where products are designed to be robust enough to last, many of the smaller devices such as headphones and wearable technology are difficult to fix and contain irreplaceable batteries that wear out, giving them a finite lifespan.
“There’s such a fantastic opportunity for large brands to step up and make their products long-lasting. The resale value is the real test of a product’s impact on the market,” Wiens says.
The good news is that access to good, reconditioned secondhand devices is getting better, which, coupled with easier repairs and extended software support, keeps devices out of the recycling for longer.
But for devices to be available for a second or third hand, they have to be bought new first, which is why we will continue to thoroughly review devices to help you choose from the best available.