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GoodGuide rates most virtuous cell phones

Consumers don't have much to go on if they want to consider the environmental or social impact of the phone they're buying. GoodGuide looks to fill the gap by expanding into electronics.

Whether they consider it bling or just a tool, people typically buy phones based on features and carrier plans. But if you're looking to add benign environmental and societal impact to your feature wish list, GoodGuide has got the data.

GoodGuide launched on Thursday cell phone ratings that rank individual models and manufacturers on health, environment, and social attributes. The new category joins others already on the site, including cleaning products, food items, personal care products, and home appliances.

Click for expanded view of ratings. Screenshot by Martin LaMonica/CNET

The ratings cover 576 phones and are based on publicly available information, said Chief Scientist Bill Pease. Altogether, 150 factors are scored and then rolled up into a single number that combines both product and company rankings. The higher the number, the more admirable the product and company.

Nokia phones hold the top spot with a model that contributes to a score of 7.7 out of 10. That's followed by phones from Samsung, Motorola, Palm, and Sony Ericsson. BlackBerry and its phones are at the bottom, with the lowest score a 3.3 out of 10. Phones from LG, Garmin-Asus, Casio, and Sharp contribute to scores that are largely between 4 and 5.

Apple's popular iPhones come in at the middle of the pack, with 5.6 for the iPhone 3Gs and the iPhone 4. People can drill down to see the performance on the individual factors that go into the aggregate score.

The case of Apple demonstrates how a product can do well in one respect but wind up with a lower score because of corporate practices or scant disclosure.

The environmental attributes in the GoodGuide methodology cover the phone's standby power consumption and its use of recyclable materials in packaging and in the phone itself. Products are given high marks when they don't use bromide flame retardants and PVC and when there is an environmental fact sheet for the product.

In that regard, the iPhone does well, scoring 8.5. But that product score is balanced against Apple's corporate environmental performance, which is 5. Apple's Society rating, which considers ethical policies around workers and sourcing of materials, such as so-called conflict minerals, is at 4.5.

By contrast, Nokia's overall high ratings benefit from good product scores and its corporate ratings, which take into account activities and disclosures around labor and human rights and company policy on conflict minerals sourced from war-torn regions.

Meanwhile, BlackBerry maker RIM has not been known for devoting a lot of time to corporate social-responsibility activities, which is one reason for the BlackBerry's lower-than-average score, said Pease.

More info please
GoodGuide did not include radio frequency emissions from cell phones in its health ratings since there isn't scientific consensus on the health risk (all phones comply with a federal standard), but consumers can pick the lowest emitting phones.

The ratings are not meant to be a certification, such as the Green Electronics Council's EPEAT. In fact, data gatherers at GoodGuide rely on third-party certification standards and watchdog groups, such as Greenpeace and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. But the GoodGuide's ratings are designed to inform consumers' buying decisions, said Pease.

Compared with other product categories, the cell phone grouping has relatively few products that are marketed based on environmental and social attributes, Pease said. At the same time, there's a significant population that says it considers these factors when buying consumer goods.

"I've been surprised at the amount of information that isn't available," Pease said. "Few companies were even talking about what they were doing around the environmental or social issues associated with their production practices."

Cell phones appear to be one of those categories where environmental attributes don't count for much in buying decisions, but that makes it ripe for better information, Pease said. A consumer could, for example, make comparisons of recycling or take-back programs, hazardous materials, or energy efficiency when weighing a buying decision.

"You're sending a signal to manufacturers that consumers do care about getting some differentiation," Pease said. GoodGuide has plans to extend its electronics ratings into PCs and laptops.