When I think of sustainability, I don’t typically think of things like the laptop I’m using to type right now. Laptops and other electronics often feel like a necessary evil that just aren’t sustainable or eco-friendly. However, after digging into the research for this post, I’ve discovered that my laptop (a refurbished Lenovo ThinkPad) is actually one of the most sustainable laptops around!
Below, I’ll look at how to choose a more environmentally friendly laptop. First though, here are my top picks for the best sustainable laptops for 2021, with more in-depth reviews below.
I’m a huge fan of Lenovo ThinkPads and am typing this on an X1 Carbon that I’ve had for at least four years and that came refurbished. When it’s time to buy a new one, I’ll very likely get another ThinkPad, especially now that I know that Lenovo make some of the most sustainable laptops available.
There were 73 Lenovo laptop models listed as TCO Certified on March 1st, 2021, including two newer (than mine!) X1 Carbon models. The real winners though are the ThinkPad L Series laptops. These are Lenovo’s greenest laptops with low energy consumption (40% savings on operating costs!) and more post-consumer recycled content (30%) than other ThinkPads (and other brands’ laptops). These laptops have an LED-backlit display and power manager, are Energy Star certified, and are EPEAT Gold Standard. They also come in minimalist recyclable packaging and are Greenguard certified, UL Environment certified, and were even Nordic Swan certified back in 2010.
Lenovo publishes an annual Sustainability Report and has made strong efforts across its operations to reduce its environmental impact. This includes preferring rail freight, restricting the use of hazardous substances by suppliers, and committing to reducing overall emissions by 40-70% between 2010 and 2050. They have also increased their target GHG reductions thanks to early achievement of interim goals.
Lenovo reduced their Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by a whopping 92% relative to 2009/10 and have installed solar panel arrays to help power operations in the US. They were awarded 3-Leaf Certification by Green Freight Asia in 2020 for their efforts at reducing emissions related to transport or materials and goods, and they have a closed loop post-consumer recycled content program to repurpose plastics. Some 66 Lenovo products now contain recycled plastics from this closed loop system, compared to 21 in the previous year. Part of how they achieve this is by using a single color plastic (black) for almost all their plastic components. This makes it far easier to replace, repair, and recycle the plastics compared to multicolor laptops.
Lenovo also perform well in terms of equity and diversity, as acknowledged on the 2020 Bloomberg Gender Equality Index and the 2019 Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. The company also achieved the best overall score in the IT industry with an AA rating on the 2019 Hang Seng Corporate Sustainability Index.
Lenovo are also taking concrete steps to phase out the use of BFRs and PVC and have eliminated most of these from their ThinkPad notebooks. BFRs are still used in power cords, cables, AC adapters, planar ASMs, subcards, connectors and some modular parts, however. They have completely eliminated the use of PBDEs, PBBs, and deca-brominated diphenyl ethers in their products. PVC is only used in power cords and cables. In addition, all ThinkPad notebooks have low halogen printed circuit boards.
An impressive majority (more than 90% across all categories) of Lenovo personal computing and server platforms are Energy Star certified as energy efficient. The company also enables users to download free firmware updates to fix batteries rather than having to replace batteries malfunctioning due to firmware problems.
Lenovo’s conflict mineral sourcing policy has been improved for 2020 in the face of some earlier criticism that their policy wasn’t sufficiently robust. They now have an overall conflict-free status improved to 97% in 2020 from 89% the year prior.
On the face of it, Apple MacBook’s look pretty good from an environmental perspective. After all, these machines are mainly made from easily recyclable and often recycled metal (aluminum) and glass, rather than plastic. Apple has also rolled out a take-back program where you can get credit towards new Apple products by recycling your old Apple products, which incentivizes the company to make laptops that are easy to disassemble and recycle. For a MacBook Pro, you could get up to $1530 back when trading in for other Apple products; for a MacBook Air the trade-in credit could be up to $600, and for a MacBook it could be up to $380.
MacBooks are also energy efficient and free from mercury, arsenic, BFRs, and PVC plastic, and Apple has a publicly stated goal that all of its products will be made entirely with clean energy by 2030. Apple’s stores, offices, and data centers are already powered by 100% renewable electricity and their operations are carbon neutral. The company reduced its carbon emissions from operations by 71% since 2011, despite Apple’s energy use more than quadrupling.
The MacBook Pro 16-inch has some impressive environmental specs. This laptop is made with 100% renewable energy at all final assembly suppliers, consumes 65% less energy than the ENERGY STAR® energy efficiency limit, and is made with 100% recycled tin in the solder of the main logic board, 35% recycled plastic, and low-carbon aluminum. It has an arsenic-free display glass, mercury-free LED-backlit display, is free from BFRs, PVC, and beryllium, and is provided in responsible recycled packaging with 83% less plastic packaging than the previous generation.
The MacBook Pro 16-inch has an estimated 394 kg of associated carbon emissions throughout its lifecycle, from production to disposal, if properly recycled by Apple. In 2018, Apple achieved a UL Zero Waste to Landfill validation for all final assembly supplier sites, meaning these sites don’t send any waste to landfill related to MacBook Pro production.
There are 8 ASUS laptops currently listed as TCO Certified and two have excellent scores for repairability on Ifixit: Asus Chromebook C202-2016 (9/10) and Asus Zenbook UX32VD-2012 (8/10. The Chromebook has modular components and uses Phillips screws only, meaning these laptops are designed to make it easy to quickly swap old parts out for new. The Zenbook also has easy access to component parts and replacing the battery is also very quick and easy.
As a company, ASUSTeK achieved 100% Energy Star compliance for all notebook computers in 2019, exceeding the energy-efficiency standards by 26%. Asus provided computer recycling services to 74% of markets worldwide, with recycling rates at 14.6% of global sales weight. The new company headquarters was also awarded LEED Platinum certification with the highest-level green building certification.
Asus have a good record of being the first to achieve various environmental milestones. They created the world’s first carbon neutral notebook in 2009 and the world’s first consumer IT headquarters with Zero Waste to Landfill validation in 2016; Asus were the first consumer technology company in Asia to publish a Social Return on Investment (SROI) report, quantifying social impacts, in 2017, followed by being the first to publish Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) reports in 2018. In 2019 Asus became the first electronics company to receive ISO 20400 Sustainable Procurement certification, implementing sustainable supply chain management.
Unfortunately, Asus don’t have the most robust record on mineral sourcing. However, they now state that 100% of the gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten used in their products came from qualified smelters in 2019 and because they now have a good policy in place the company received Ethical Consumer’s best rating for its conflict minerals policy in 2019.
Asus reduced the use of PVC in products by 27% in 2019 relative to 2016 and is committed to reducing the use of halogen flame retardants. In 2019, 87.1% of components in their products complied with the GreenASUS Halogen-Free Technical Standard, meeting their goal of 85% halogen-free components by 2020. Unfortunately, they don’t have a clear commitment to completely phasing out the use of PVC, BFRs, phthalates, and other common toxic chemicals in electronics.
Dell make some of the best sustainable laptops around, including the easily repairable Dell Latitude E52702017 which gets a top rating (10) from Ifixit. This laptop is built so that you can replace the battery, trackpad buttons, display, and keyboard, and upgrade the RAM and the solid-state drive (SSD). Dell use minimal adhesives and instead use standard Phillips screws and offers clear repair and disassembly instructions, so you can fix or replace parts at home or have it easily repaired or upgraded by a professional.
Many Dell laptops are also TCO Certified and the company issues an annual Corporate Social Responsibility Report with environmental and social impacts. In recent years, the company has reduced product energy use, increased the sustainability of packaging materials, reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions at Dell offices and manufacturing facilities (in part by increasing reliance on renewables), and reduced the overall environmental burden of their products across their lifecycle. Dell are also working with suppliers to support the phase-out of the use of toxic chemicals.
Dell aims to reduce the company’s global absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 compared to 2011, with a goal of 75% renewable energy use by 2030 and 100% by 2040. They also aim to reduce the energy intensity of products by 80% by 2021 compared to 2012.
Dell have a Chemical Use Policy and are continuing to phase out the use of PVC and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from laptops and other computers. Four phthalates (DEHP, BBP, DBP, and DIBP) have already been phased out.
As for conflict minerals, Dell has a robust policy around responsible sourcing and makes every attempt to avoid using minerals sourced from areas of concern, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). That said, there have been some concerns raised over Dell’s cobalt supply chain and the potential that the company, along with Apple, Nike, and 80 or so other global brands may benefit from forced labor camps and the detention of Uighurs in China.
HP make a large number of sustainable laptops with TCO certification and high scores from Ifixit. The EliteBook models almost all seem to be very easy to repair, with easily accessible batteries, SSD, RAM, and displays, modular moving parts like speakers, trackpad, and fan, and standard screws that don’t need specialist tools to work with. Some of the best options as listed at Ifixit include:
- HP EliteBook x360 830 G7 – 2020
- HP EliteBook 840 G7 2020
- EliteBook 800 G5 2020
- HP ProBook 440 G7 2020
- HP Elitebook x360 1040 G5 2020.
The latter option even comes with free user-accessible repair documentation, though repair is a bit more complicated than with the other models because of the use of tapes, adhesives, and fragile clips to secure components.
HP also garnered headlines in Forbes and other places in 2019 with the launch of their Elite Dragonfly laptop. This high-spec but low weight laptop was, according to HP, the first PC made with “ocean-bound” plastics, i.e., plastics collected from waterways, beaches, and shorelines that would otherwise end up in the oceans. HP’s goal is to use 30% recycled plastics in all its products by the end of 2025, compared to 7% today. This also creates jobs in local communities as it increases demand for PET bottles collected from beaches and waterways.
HP have also committed to reducing potable water consumption in global operations by 15% by 2025, compared to 2015, and to reduce Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions from global operations by 60% by 2025, compared to 2015. They have a goal of using 100% renewable electricity in global operations by 2035 and 60% by 2025. The company has also committed to using 30% post-consumer recycled content plastic across HP’s personal systems and print product portfolio by 2025. Finally, HP is aiming to reduce GHGs associated with product use by 30% by 2025, compared to 2015.
HP doesn’t have a robust policy on toxic chemicals but does offer vague commitments to reduce the use of PVC, BFRs, and other troublemakers. The company does, however, have a solid policy on mineral sourcing and is a member of the Responsible Mining Initiative.
Fujitsu laptops are reasonably repairable, with repair and upgrade guides available for several models on Ifixit. The company also has at least 3 TCO Certified laptops and publishes a somewhat regular environmental and sustainability report.
Fujitsu aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a third by 2030 and by 80% by 2050, compared to 2013 emissions. It is also signed up to RE100, with a commitment to using 40% renewable power by 2030 and 100% renewable energy by 2050.
The company has a fairly weak policy on the use of toxic chemicals and makes vague commitments to reduce PVC use and BFRs. They also offer some commitments about not buying conflict minerals, and Fujitsu is a member of the Responsible Minerals Trade Working Group of Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA), but they haven’t committed to a clear policy on sourcing minerals from the DRC or discontinuing use of problematic precious metal smelters.
How to choose a sustainable laptop
What makes a laptop sustainable? For a start, a refurbished or second-hand laptop is always better for the environment as it saves new materials being used when perfectly good options already exist. And, unlike with refrigerators and larger appliances, there’s also not a great deal of difference in energy consumption between a new and refurbished laptop. In fact, older laptops may actually use less energy by not having huge graphics cards and giant hard drives!
Another aspect of laptop sustainability is whether the laptop is repairable and upgradeable. If you can extend the life of your laptop by repairing and updating component pieces as required, rather than having to ditch the whole machine, this is much more eco-friendly.
At minimum, look for a laptop with a replaceable battery. Even better, choose a laptop where you can replace the hard drive and RAM too. Interestingly, many cheaper laptops work out more costly in the long-run because you can’t easily upgrade and repair components. In contrast, business class laptops can save you money by being designed for easier reparability and upgrades. You can check the repairability of many popular laptops through the fantastic Ifixit site.
Another top tip when searching for a laptop that’s a little more eco-friendly is to check if the laptop is TCO-Certified. The TCO-Certified label means that the laptop has a lower environmental and social impact across its lifespan, from construction to disposal. TCO also certified other types of electronics and is a great label to look for.
When searching for a sustainable laptop, look for companies that have policies around:
- Responsible mineral sourcing – to avoid conflict minerals, especially tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold (3TG), often sourced unethically from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
- Phasing out dangerous toxic chemicals – PVC, brominated flame retardants, and phthalates, for instance.
Finally, check out a company’s annual sustainability report or other environmental reporting documentation. Read the full report rather than just the executive summary and look for meaningful, data-driven steps towards increased sustainability, such as measurable targets and progress updates on things like use of renewable energy at production facilities, zero waste to landfill initiatives, and timelines for phasing out virgin plastics, PVC, flame retardants and so forth.