Your Guide to Buying Refurbsby Dan KetchumUpdated August 01, 2017
When we say, "It Still Works," we're not just talking about electronics that are a little past their prime, or those that have been succeeded in the market by gadgets with higher numbers at the end of their names. We're also talking about contemporary electronics that, for whatever reason, have been returned and refurbished for resale – they (mostly) work just fine, too.
In fact, they "work" in quite a few ways. They work for the planet by reducing waste, and they work for your bank account by saving you significant amounts of money compared to brand-new products. But just because something is green and saves you some green doesn't mean it's completely rosy – before you jump in to the wonderful world of refurbs, it pays to know exactly what the perks are, and exactly what sorts of purchases to look for.
Save the Planet...
Though most smartphones weigh somewhere between 125 and 165 grams, the manufacturing process of these tiny dynamos has a huge environmental impact. According to the Ethical Consumer Research Association, each phone causes about 16 kilograms of CO2 emissions during manufacturing – that's as much atmospheric waste as a kilogram of beef. And as Chemical & Engineering News reports, only 17 of the 40 elements used to manufacture the average cell phone are recovered even when the phone goes through a highly specialized recycling plant. Once you break out of the ultraportable market, the situation gets downright shocking; UN University estimates that a single desktop computer requires 48 pounds of chemicals, 529 pounds of fossil fuels, and 1.7 tons of water to manufacture.
So here's the simple math: When you buy a new electronic device, you're also buying all of that environmental impact. When you buy a refurb instead, the environmental impact of your purchase is virtually nill in comparison.
...and Save Your Cash
As significant as environmental impact is, it can often be a difficult concept to imagine. A purchase's effect on your bank account, however, is a lot more concrete.
Buying an iPhone 6s via Apple's Certified Refurbished Program, for instance, saves you 15 to 16 percent of the purchase price of a new phone – that's about $80 to $120, depending on storage capacity and options. Similarly, Nintendo's own online store sells a company-refurbished 2DS system for $60, compared to the $80 MSRP on a new console, making for a savings of 25 percent.
As product prices rise, so do the savings. No one needs a long lens to see the $450 you save when buying a refurbished Nikon SLR camera for $2,300 instead of $2,750, for example.
When an electronics manufacturer refurbishes a product, the device is typically completely disassembled, thoroughly cleaned, repaired if necessary – a situation that surprisingly only applies to about 5 percent of refurbs – and reassembled for resale, all under the watch of strict quality control standards.
As a general rule of thumb, though, those strict standards are far more likely to be upheld by manufacturers than they are by retailers, which makes it a smart choice to go through the company's official refurb program whenever possible.
When browsing refurbished electronics sold at retail stores – both online and out in the real world – you'll run into more variables. Some items are rehabbed by the original manufacturer, while others are sent to a third-party. You're also not absolutely guaranteed a lower price, as you are with a manufacturer, so it really pays to do your research in this case. In particular, make sure the retailer isn't selling an older model under the banner of a newer model, or that a brand-spanking-new version of the product isn't available elsewhere for a competitive price. In terms of retailer reliability, Consumer Reports recommends Amazon, Best Buy, and GameStop.
Above all, look for a solid warranty when shopping refurbished – the aforementioned Apple and Nintendo products, just to name two, each come with a full year of manufacturer coverage. When the manufacturer is that confident in their refurb, that's a pretty good sign that you can be confident, too – and that confidence might just help you save the planet and save some money next time you're eyeing those new tech toys.
- Time: The State of the Smartphone War in 8 Charts
- Ethical Consumer: Guide to Greener Mobile Phone Companies
- United Nations University: Computers and the Environment
- Chemical & Engineering News: Dialing Back on Cell Phone Waste
- Center for Environmental Health: Story of Electronics: At Home
- Apple: Refurbished iPhone: Featured Products
- Nintendo Store: Nintendo 2DS
- Accenture: U.S. Consumer Electronics Industry Faces a Projected $17 Billion Product Returns Bill This Year
- Consumer Reports: Should You Buy Refurbished Electronics?