What Really Makes a Gadget Eco-Friendly

It's more than just how little power it uses

Key Takeaways

  • The Nintendo Switch is the most power-efficient gaming console.
  • A smartphone can replace a whole closet full of obsolete devices.
  • Buying fewer gadgets is the greenest way to shop.
Inside look at the rechargeable li-ion battery inside the Nintendo Switch Joy Con controller
Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

The Nintendo Switch is the most "eco-friendly" console, using a fraction of the energy of other consoles. But can any gadget really be considered green?

According to research by NerdWallet, the Switch uses half the energy of the Xbox line, and less than two-thirds the energy of the Playstation systems—both of which have been pretty consistent in their respective energy consumption levels over the past few generations. But energy is only part of the equation. There's also the materials used to make these machines, and the resources consumed through shipping. And, of course, the problem isn’t just game consoles—this applies to all gadgets.

"Accurately identifying an eco-friendly gadget would require a rigorous review of every aspect of the product’s production, life, and death," Mallory Strom, co-creator of Sustain-A-Block, told Lifewire via email. "We have to ask ourselves about the resources extracted from the Earth to create it, the energy and water required to design and produce the product, and the company’s practices regarding renewable energy, mining, and recycled materials."

Green Gadgets

Energy usage is a start, but perhaps a more useful measure might be a carbon footprint.

"Accurately identifying an eco-friendly gadget would require a rigorous review of every aspect of the product’s production, life, and death."

"'Eco-friendly' is such a squishy term that I find unhelpful without further definition," Alex Beale, founder of eco-friendly living site FootprintHero, told Lifewire via email. "An ‘eco-friendly’ gadget [is] a gadget that has a low carbon footprint relative to the alternatives, or one that helps you reduce your carbon footprint."

But gadgets, or really any devices manufactured today, can’t really be considered green. There are just too many ways to pollute the planet, or diminish its resources. 

Interior look at a circuit board
Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

"How do manufacturers power their factories?" Julia L. F. Goldstein, author of Material Value, questioned in an email to Lifewire. "How much recycled content do they use in their products and packaging? How do they address avoiding conflict minerals?"

And the problems aren’t over after the product is sold. "Do they have take-back programs that encourage high e-waste recycling rates?" says Goldstein. "What about product repairability?"

Smartphones: The Least Worst Option?

Smartphones are no better than any other gadget in terms of their environmental impact, but they do have one thing going for them; if you have a smartphone, you’re probably not buying a camera, an MP3 player, a portable games console, a GPS satellite navigation unit, a GPS tracker, or a step counter.

"There’s an argument to be made that smartphones are good for the environment due to their condensing nature," James Black, founder of outdoor activity site Wilderness Redefined, told Lifewire via email. "No longer do you need a phone, camera, and MP3 player. Smartphones have combined technologies to reduce waste in the production of gadgets."

"An ‘eco-friendly’ gadget [is] a gadget that has a low carbon footprint relative to the alternatives, or one that helps you reduce your carbon footprint."

This might sound like backwards justification, but one look at the markets for these gadgets tells you everything you need to know. Camera sales drop every year, and while computer, tablet, and phone sales were strong last year, the camera market shrank by 40%. But, of course, phones themselves have their own problems. The biggest might be our compulsion to toss them out after a year or two.

"The way that we burn through smartphones is definitely wasteful," says Black. "Most smartphone users look to upgrade after a couple of years—if their phone lasts that long."

Photo of an old Sony Ericsson cell phone resting on a laptop
Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

Ethical buying only goes so far, and should the consumer really have to take responsibility for the behavior of large manufacturers? Government regulation is the proper answer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help.

Instead of ditching your phone every year or two, keep it for four. And when you’re done with it, maybe pass it on to a friend or a younger family member. That’s a lot better than recycling because it stops one more phone from being bought. And if you do want a games console? Well, the Switch is a great option!

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