Send your question to Umbra!

Q. What’s the best(ish) choice I can make when purchasing a computer? Is there a company out there that makes an effort to not overly pollute/exploit/crap on the earth and its people?

Austin
Antananarivo, Madagascar

A. Dearest Austin,

Computers do have their benefits – allowing us to have this transoceanic discussion, for example, or putting a bottomless supply of adorable cat videos at our fingertips. But the ubiquitous thinking boxes come with a hearty impact on the planet throughout their life cycles, from potentially toxic materials used in their manufacture to their siphoning of electricity to the knotty problem of what to do with them once they’re kaput. Is opting out of civilization entirely an option for you, Austin? If not (and I hope it isn’t – how else would we have these chats?), you’re going to have to deal with a computer. Luckily, some companies are markedly better than others.

To find out which ones they are, we can turn to several third-party ranking systems that consider everything from how the computers are produced to how easy they are to repair and recycle. A biggie here is EPEAT, run by the Green Electronics Council. These standards break down a company’s performance in key categories – for example, reducing or eliminating the use of nasties like cadmium, mercury, and PVC in their computers; building machines to be easily disassembled and recycled; running a take-back program for computers and/or batteries; and even overarching corporate eco-policy.

You can search the EPEAT database for specific computer models or browse its high scorers (as of my search this week, 1,235 U.S. computers earned Gold status). This is an excellent place to start your shopping – though before you browse, let me suggest you focus on laptops rather than desktops, as the get-up-and-go machines require 50 percent less energy to run.

I’d also recommend checking out Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics, a frequently updated ranking system that looks at manufacturers as a whole instead of individual products. In addition to evaluating what kinds of chemicals and minerals go into the computers and recyclability, the guide also reports on the company’s greenhouse gas emissions and how ambitious its renewable energy goals are. Indian company Wipro currently sits in the top spot here, with a score of 7.1 out of 10. HP trails with a 5.7 for second place.

It’s perhaps not the biggest part of a computer’s footprint, but energy use should also play into our shopping choices. The government’s Energy Star program certifies models that sip rather than guzzle electricity and implement power management features. It’s searchable by brand, processor type, memory, and other very techy specs that I’d need to look up for you to discuss further. (Note for multitaskers: EPEAT standards incorporate Energy Star bona fides.)

These guidelines should give you a dizzying array of contenders to be your next digital sidekick, Austin, but before you plunk down your hard-earned cash: I also want you to consider a refurbished laptop. As I’ve discussed in the past, these gently used or reclaimed machines are perfectly serviceable, save you a chunk of change, and help give new life to a valuable computer that might otherwise languish in a landfill leaching toxins. Bonus points for cross-referencing the databases above to find the greenest used models.

Finally, once you’ve found a computer to match your eco-conscience, don’t neglect good computer practices. Enable your laptop’s power management features (here’s how – it’s not usually an automatic perk) and turn it off when you step away for more than a few minutes. Resist the urge to buy a sexy new machine every year and instead turn to upgrades.  And please, please dispose of it responsibly after a lifetime of service – whether through the manufacturer’s take-back policy or another recycler. Smart shopping and use are our best tools, at least until this computer fad blows over.

Processorily,
Umbra