Hazardous substances used in IT products is a risk to human health and the environment. Stephen Fuller, Criteria Development & Compliance Manager at TCO Development explains why banning substances isn’t enough and that identifying safer alternatives is the way forward.

This text is an excerpt from the report Impacts and Insights 2019.

Stephen Fuller, TCO Development

We have worked with the IT industry and gathered information on flame retardants, risks and which alternatives they used for more than 15 years. Our conclusion is that lack of transparency is an industry-wide problem when it comes to chemical hazard. While some hazardous substances have been phased out through legislation or voluntary initiatives, too little is known about what’s being used to replace them. The only safe way forward is to assess the alternatives and make sure they are safer before using them.

Clearly, if we are to move toward a sustainable life cycle for IT products, we have to know what they contain. As an independent organization, our ambition is to drive faster progress toward chemical transparency, better data and therefore also provide a pathway toward safer substitutions. With TCO Certified Accepted Substance List, safer alternatives are now being identified and this information is made available to all. Any non-assessed or non-approved chemical is considered a high risk until it is proven to be otherwise. TCO Certified Accepted Substance List is our contribution to both industry and society at large, as the list is public and available to everyone, regardless of industry or product area.

Before a substance is added to the list, an independent toxicologist gathers and evaluates all the available information — not just public information but also information owned by the chemical manufacturer. The amount of public information is often very limited, which makes it difficult for toxicologists to make an informed judgement on the environmental and human health risks.

“With TCO Certified Accepted Substance List, substances are considered a high hazard until proven otherwise”

With TCO Certified Accepted Substance List, chemical suppliers are required to share the information they have. Failing to do so leads to a business disadvantage when the chemical is excluded from TCO Certified Accepted Substance List and cannot be used in certified products. With this approach, our idea is to incentivize transparency by connecting information sharing with business opportunity.

At first, our push for greater transparency was a somewhat confronting challenge and required a new mindset from industry. We met with some resistance from chemical companies, as information on ingredients and hazards was typically treated as confidential. What caused the shift with major chemical suppliers was when their clients, the IT brand owners, used the criteria in TCO Certified as leverage to bring about a new level of transparency around the chemicals used in certified products. Industry began to see the benefits of a shared list that helps them make more informed judgements on chemical use. The transparent approach lowers the brand owner’s risk of expensive product recalls or costly transitions to another chemical supplier, should a substance become restricted by legislation.

“We’re now speeding up the shift toward using safer alternatives by making them the mainstream choice“

We knew that safer alternatives were available. The issue was they weren’t being used widely enough. TCO Certified Accepted Substance List is our way of speeding up the shift toward using safer alternatives by making them the mainstream choice. We introduced TCO Certified Accepted Substance List for flame retardants in 2015 and now everyone can see that it is possible to turn the table on the standard way that businesses and governments only restrict chemicals.

Now perhaps for the first time, the brand owners can not only be transparent on which chemicals they restrict but also better informed about the ones they use as substitutes. This allows the IT industry to take larger steps faster.

During 2015 to 2018, the number of accepted flame retardants on the list grew to 15. Recently, four flame retardants on the list were reassessed. Three of these achieved an improved benchmark score and one remained the same — once again showing how important it is to have chemical suppliers share research information on a continuing basis. Allowing everyone the chance to challenge benchmark scores with new data is another strength of the dynamic, accepted list approach.

Three years ago all brand owners worked with restricted substance lists and only a small few had a very short list of preferred alternatives. Today, all brand owners that use TCO Certified have access to a list of 15 preferred flame retardant safer alternatives.”

This is an extract from the report Impacts and Insights 2019. The report measures the sustainability progress among brand owners with IT products certified according to TCO Certified, and presents keys to solving the most pressing sustainability challenges in the IT product supply chain.