When my old iPod earbuds finally expired and went to the big Apple in the sky, I decided to search for a replacement that had a relatively positive social and/or environmental impact. I’m not crazy about over-ear headphones – I haven’t let go of that survival instinct where I need to hear at least some of the sounds around me – so I’m focusing here on in-ear headphones. Having said that, most of the in-ear headphones these days have silicone tips that blot out a lot of background sound, so they are a happy medium between expensive noise-cancelling headphones and cheap plastic earbuds. There are already a few good articles and blog posts that provide quick guides to some of the eco-friendly options available. Guides such as these are a useful starting point, but since they are often based purely on information provided on company websites, it’s more useful to have a report in the form of a review that considers the ethical aspects of the product. So this post will look at expectations versus reality for the two pairs that I tried out.
I made a shortlist of candidates based on some attributes that I wanted:
- Longevity: Positive reviews that suggest that they will last a long time + a warranty.
- Use of natural materials: The use of wood has become very popular, for both acoustics and sustainability.
- Avoidance of PVC: dioxins and phthalates are two of the environmental toxins associated with PVC.
- Sustainable packaging with minimal use of plastic.
- Positive social impact.
House of Marley
I ended up buying a pair of Uplift headphones from the House of Marley. Here’s a quick rundown on the quality (gold stars) and social and environmental impact (green stars).
Quality (2/5 gold stars)
- They look nice and the cord is tangle-free.
- While sitting perfectly still the sound quality was quite good – too bass-heavy at first but turning off the equalizer on my iPod could compensate for this.
- There was so much sound interference from the cord (while moving or even touching the cord) that they were unusable in most situations.
- The volume control didn’t work with my Android phone.
- The earbuds were uncomfortable for me.
Social and Environmental Impact (3/5 green stars)
- The earbuds are made from FSC-certified wood and aluminum.
- The packaging insert was made from polystyrene – a predominantly unrecyclable plastic with environmental hazards during both production and disposal.
- It’s supposed to come with a fabric carry case composed of reclaimed hemp, organic cotton, and recycled plastic bottles. There was no case. This didn’t bother me so much, but made me wonder about their other claims.
- The House of Marley supports the 1Love Foundation but that website has been down for at least four months and the House of Marley don’t explain exactly how they support 1Love. What percentage of sales do they donate, and what is that money used for?
- A product that doesn’t work well is a waste of materials and energy. Granted, I may have received a “lemon” but based on recent reviews, so did many others.
There appears to be a disconnection between their claims and what they actually deliver. My feeling is that the company has good intentions but perhaps is suffering from poor leadership or organization. I hope they can fix these issues and would support them in future if they did. You can read the full review here.
I had to return the House of Marley headphones and ended up buying a pair of Wembley headphones from LSTN. Here’s my summary:
Quality (5/5 gold stars)
- The sound quality is excellent across all musical genres tested, from rock to classical to hip-hop.
- The earbuds were comfortable.
- The cord didn’t tangle and they look good and appear to be very well-made and robust.
- You can place the earbuds loosely in your ears if you want to be able to hear sounds around you (e.g., if you are out walking) or push them more snugly into your ears to eliminate more background sound (e.g., when on an airplane or noisy café).
- Volume control and microphone worked fine.
Social and Environmental impact (5/5 green stars)
- The earbuds are made from bamboo wood (one of the most sustainable materials on the planet).
- The cord is made from rubber, which is not so bad – the main thing is to avoid PVC.
- LSTN package their headphones in a cardboard box
- LSTN have a big social mission: they fund the provision of hearing aids for people in need through the Starkey Hearing Foundation. So far they have funded hearing aids to over 22,000 people.
They were not perfect. I was disappointed to see that that box insert was light plastic (unlabeled) coated with some kind of fuzzy felt, probably making it unrecyclable. Their carry case was also a fuzzy felt and should also have been made from simpler natural materials. They need to improve on both of these things. I deliberated between 4 and 5 green stars because of this, but in the end I decided to give them 5 based on their social mission and overall consideration of how they rank in terms of social and environmental impact compared to the competition. You can read the full review here.
Other headphones worth considering
Do you have an experience (negative or positive) with headphones to share? Please add a comment, particularly if you have an opinion on the social or environmental impact of headphones that you’ve tried. I’m happy with my LSTN headphones (I’ve had them for 2 years now) but would probably have moved on to trying one of the other brands on the list had they not worked out: Jamboo, Symphonized, or Thinksound.
Has anyone from Europe tried Woodbuds? The Guardian has given this UK company the thumbs up. The housing for their earphones is made using 100% plantation wood (walnut) and they use a blend of bio-plastic to create the cable. The box is 100% recyclable, they are a member of 1% for the Planet and also plant a tree for every 100 products they sell. Furthermore, they are modeled by a man with a hipster beard so they must be good.