(Image credit: Green device / Shutterstock)

There is a worldwide movement towards being more eco-friendly and green. Global warming is a real concern for many of us. While the term “carbon footprint” did not mean anything just a few years ago, many people are now conscious of the carbon dioxide emissions they are responsible for. The aim is to stop burning so many fossil fuels (which are finite, anyway) and to identify ways of recycling, reducing waste, and behaving in a more ethically sound manner towards the planet and our fellow humans.

The trend towards making considered purchases and choosing eco-friendly or green products over other — often cheaper — counterparts has been slow to hit the mobile industry. As Dara O’Rourke points out in this NY Times blog we have a long way to go, but “environmentally conscious purchasing — which is still only 1 to 5 percent of the market — is actually making a difference. Recent growth in organic, local, fair trade, nontoxic, energy efficient, hybrid and sweat-free products are all testament to the potential of conscious consumers.”

How are our electronics made?

The vast majority of our smartphones and tablets are manufactured from parts made in the Far East. This is due to the cost-savings companies can make in terms of cheap labor and manufacturing efficiencies. Workers in China will accept low wages and poor working conditions (they don’t have too much choice in the matter). Mining the raw materials and the manufacturing process use up a great deal of energy, and most of it is produced by burning fossil fuels. You may well ask why tech companies are totally evil but the answer is obvious – profit comes above all else.

Rise of the green consumer

Some successes in the green movement have been based on the idea that companies will only change their ways if they can make a profit doing it. The birth of the “green consumer” meant demand for ethical and eco-friendly products and many companies began to provide them. It also works the other way. If a company feels the pinch because negative press about its practices turns consumers off then it might change its ways.

The scandal about working conditions at Foxconn, an Apple supplier, got some press, but it’s not clear what the end result was. Another report, earlier this month, claimed that HEG Electronics was using child labor. The company is a major supplier for Samsung, Motorola and LG.

Apple was also going to pull EPEAT environmentally friendly certification from its products, but backed down after complaints and a threatened boycott.

What is a green smartphone or tablet anyway?

Part of the problem with identifying green products is that a lot of different factors weigh in. There’s the human cost, the resources used, the manufacturing process, the packaging, and even the recycling plan for its end of life. Then there’s the power needed to run the networks and recharge your batteries.

Companies are getting better at using recycled materials in their smartphones, tablets, and packaging. The manufacture techniques are being streamlined. Some carriers are even considering how to go green. There was an article on the BBC website yesterday about Indian mobile firms switching to green power to run their networks.

Here in the UK, the carrier O2 has adopted an eco-rating system which gives each phone a score according to a range of factors devised by an independent organization called Forum for the Future. Sadly Apple refused to take part in the scheme. In the US, major carrier AT&T has also rolled out an eco-rating system for their phones. Once again you won’t see the iPhone on the chart. AT&T’s current winner is the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate.

If you are concerned about how green your favorite tech company is then you may want to check out the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics. The current top three are HP, Dell, and Nokia. The guide takes many factors into account and it focusses on entire companies, not just their mobile devices. That’s why you’ll find Sony in a lowly 10th position despite their eco-friendly mobile releases.

If you’re looking for more detailed information then you might want to check out the reports at Ethical Consumer where you can actually prioritize the factors that are important to you from people, to the environment, to sustainability.

Are there any green smartphones or tablets on the market?

The current European Green Smartphone of the year for 2012-2013, according to EISA, is the Sony Xperia P which boasts great energy performance and efficient use of materials. Last year’s winner was also a Sony device – the Xperia Mini.

As mentioned above, the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate at AT&T has a good “eco-score.” Sprint’s LG Viper also lays claim to the green tag. Nokia has a good history of eco-friendly products and the Nokia 808 PureView, along with its Asha range and the Windows Phone Lumia, all get good eco-ratings. In terms of materials the iPhone is also fairly green.

When it comes to tablets, sadly things like the ecoPad, which would be powered by your touch, are only concepts. Once again the iPad avoids using some dodgy materials, but there may be issues with the manufacturing process. There doesn’t appear to be any tablet selling itself primarily as a green product right now so perhaps that’s a niche for someone to exploit.

Staying green with mobile tech

If you’re really concerned about staying green when it comes to your mobile tech then the most effective action you can take is to avoid upgrading when you don’t need to. If you do upgrade, then you could choose a more eco-friendly smartphone, and you should always at least make sure that you recycle your old phone. Don’t just throw it in the bin. You can re-sell it, hand it down to a friend or relative, or send it to a recycling facility.

To be honest the mobile industry is far from green right now. The only thing that’s really likely to encourage it in the right direction is buying decisions from consumers, but are you willing to trade a big touchscreen and the latest zippy specs for something that’s more ethically sound?