Behind the Ratings: Cell Phones

We’re quickly moving our way through store aisles, and nothing reflects this more than one of our newest set of ratings, cell phones. I got the details on our first foray into consumer electronics from Science Team member Dave, who shared the unique challenges faced when trying to figure out how best to characterize the environmental and social impact of these devices most of us can’t live without. In the end, we were able to build a robust rating that uses the best data available to quantify what you should be thinking about when it comes to your phone’s environmental and social footprint.


First, let’s walk through the environmental score. Half of the environmental score comes from product-level data (five components), while the other half comes from company-level data. Below are the factors contributing to the product portion of the environmental score (from highest to lowest importance):

Energy management (product): Phone chargers suck up energy when they are plugged into a socket, even if they aren’t connected to your phone. However, how MUCH energy they waste can vary by the technology used to build the charger. Phones with chargers that waste less energy in standby mode score higher than phones with chargers that waste more energy when in standby mode.

Toxic waste (product): Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) have been identified as potentially hazardous to the environment. As a result, manufacturers have begun phasing out use of these materials. Phones that bear BFR and/or PVC-free claims are given higher scores on this attribute than phones that don’t bear such claims.

Environmental disclosure (product): Ideally, we would have liked to assess individual environmental reports for each cell phone. However, we found that the industry standard is to provide limited information, meaning that few products had dedicated documentation covering environmental impact. To reward products that demonstrated transparency, we gave higher scores to those with publicly available environmental reports.

Product management (product): Since there are no independent systems to measure and compare the environmental performance of a cell phone, some cell phone carriers have stepped in and designed their own assessments for phones. Our evaluations found that carrier-generated standards are rigorous and worthwhile when it comes to comparing phones, and therefore phones meeting these standards are positively credited.

Eco-materials management (product): It can be challenging to parse through the green claims offered up by phone manufacturers. We took a look at product-specific claims as they relate to the product (ie, whether a phone’s plastic housing is made from recycled or bio-based plastic) as well as recycled content used in the packaging.

To more accurately evaluate the environmental impact of cell phones, we felt it would be important to include company-level information. These attributes (enhanced company attributes, as we like to call them), are listed below in order of importance and supplement the traditional company scoring we carry out at GoodGuide.

Green production practices (company): Building upon data from GreenPeace’s “Guide to Greener Electronics,” we were able to incorporate industry-specific issues related to chemicals, e-waste, and energy into the company portion of our environmental score. This comprehensive data source allowed us to better characterize the environmental performance of cell phone manufacturers.

Extended producer responsibility (company): Recycling a cell phone should be easy, and fortunately, some cell phone manufacturers are making it so. Using data from the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, we evaluated each cell phone manufacturer on their dedication to phone recycling. This assessment was folded into the company’s environmental score.


Next we’ll touch briefly on the social score, which is fully calculated using company attributes, but incorporates data on a company’s reliance on conflict minerals. Significant evidence is emerging that the mineral trade supporting the manufacture of our electronics may not always build the best community for locals living near the mines. Using research conducted by The Enough Project, we were able to identify manufacturers who are taking positive steps to address injustices in their supply chains.


After looking extensively into the research on the health impact of cell phones, we decided there was not enough evidence or data to implement a health rating for this category at this time. However, we have built a filter for anyone interested in finding products with lower specific absorption rates (SAR).

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! We commend you for your interest in the environmental and social justice ramifications of selecting a cell phone. If you’re hungry for more, take a look at our official cell phone methodology page.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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2 Responses to Behind the Ratings: Cell Phones

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  2. Pingback: Nokia Beat Apple, HTC and Palm et al in Eco Stakes |

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