Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

03 Mar 2010, 14:31 p.m.

Sweatshop-Free Linux Laptop Search, Part II

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I got a few recommendations when I recently asked where to find ethically sourced laptops that come preinstalled with some flavor of Linux (Debian, Ubuntu, or Fedora). My notes are below; I ended up going with ZaReason.

I'm going to note here the research I've done so others can correct me or stand on my shoulders. To repeat, I was looking for laptops with the following characteristics:

  • Come without Microsoft Windows pre-installed (I'm sick of paying the Windows tax)
  • Most or all components ethically sourced
  • Manufactured/assembled someplace with real labor standards
  • General laptop desiderata (sturdiness, battery life, thinner is better)

I don't really care about a laptop's weight or looks.

So, I'm trying to make a reasonable effort to buy a sweatshop-free/fairtrade, green/sustainable, and Windows-free laptop. All those buzzwords together cause a bit of a problem if you live in the US and want to buy from a mainstream retailer. (And when you get down to the component level, it's probably impossible, but I had to try.)

Dell offers some Ubuntu laptops (the Vostro and Latitude), and they give at least lip service to greenness, but they're all assembled in China and at least one report says their plants don't treat the workers as I'd like them treated. ("Environmental Commitment Trumps Respect for Human Rights," notes the NLC report - backhanded praise of a sort. That same report indicts IBM/Lenovo, Microsoft, and HP.)

At least one comprehensive ethical-buying guide recommends IBM products, but I worry that it's out of date, since (as far as I can tell) IBM's PC hardware is no longer made directly by IBM, but by Lenovo in China. Lenovo Thinkpads are reliable and run Linux well. Collabora provided me an x200 when I worked there, and I loved it. But again - made in China, labor practices not so hot. And, as far as I can tell, all Lenovo laptops come preloaded with Windows.

Lenovo is or was partially owned by the Chinese government via Legend Holdings, until that stake got sold to the private China Oceanwide Holdings Group (my financial research fu is not strong). I'd be unhappy about supporting bad governments with my purchases, but it's not like any large companies have only benevolent stockholders, and who knows where the manufacturers are getting components! (This comes up in Sara Bongiorni's A Year without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy; to simplify, she decides not to look too hard at Chinese-made components.)

Other buying guides were incomplete. I rather wish the National Labor Committee had a stamp of approval. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition depends mostly on voluntary self-reporting, which isn't terribly trustworthy, although the third-party audit data might be good if it weren't at least a year out of date. The guides are obsolete, seems to be an SEO site without specific & up-to-date recommendations, and Laptop Magazine's green buying guide is eight months out of date and only looks at environmental friendliness, not human rights. And of course it's rare that any of those laptops come without Windows preinstalled.

Stuart said he's had good experiences with EmperorLinux, and they do indeed sell laptops with Linux preinstalled. But they're reselling the machines that Dell, Lenovo, Fujitsu, Panasonic, and Sony manufacture. Dell and Lenovo are out as mentioned above, and I don't particularly want the Fujitsu tablets EmperorLinux has on offer. I started looking up Sony and Panasonic manufacturing locations (mostly Japan, I think?), but was discouraged to see that EmperorLinux offerings from Panasonic and Sony started at USD1750. I'm willing to pay extra for what I care about, but $1,750 was several hundred dollars more than I'd budgeted.

Then, thanks to a pointer from Leigh Honeywell, I looked up ZaReason, which seems to be the end of my search. ZaReason builds Linux laptops in Berkeley, tries to monitor its Chinese component factories/sources for fair labor practices/greenness, and is run by Cathy Malmrose ("The Un-Scary Screwdriver," GNOME Journal, November 2009). Their prices are reasonable, with laptops starting at USD599. And when I emailed them to ask where they assemble their products (Berkeley), Malmrose wrote me a long, clear, comprehensive, and thoughtful reply.

So I'll be placing an order for the Strata 2660 later this week. Thanks, Malmrose & Honeywell!


Sumana Harihareswara
03 Mar 2010, 22:54 p.m.

The complete text of Malmrose's email is the next entry in CES.

Sumana Harihareswara
04 Mar 2010, 6:48 a.m.

To be slightly fairer to Dell - if I lived in Europe, they'd probably assemble my order in Poland.

Leigh Honeywell
18 Mar 2010, 7:04 a.m.

Not sure if I mentioned this on IRC, but Dell also has a line of PCs built in the US of mostly US components. They are intended for national-security-sensitive stuff, though, and are probably uber expensive.

Sumana Harihareswara
18 Mar 2010, 14:18 p.m.

Leigh, you did mention it in your tweet, but I did a tiny bit of research and it looked like it would be a pain for me as a private citizen to get one of those. (I don't think I even got to the relevant cost.) But thank you for reminding me!