Social responsibility a challenge in the IT product supply chain

Social responsibility is a continuing challenge throughout the IT supply chain. From raw materials extraction to final assembly, working hours, health and safety and forced labor are examples of industry-wide issues.

Like the textile and furniture industries, much of the manufacturing of IT products is carried out in low-cost, low-wage countries, where workers are often less protected and employment less regulated than in more developed countries. Shorter product cycles and a growing demand for new technologies puts added pressure on industry and its complex supply chain to deliver new devices faster and at a lower cost. The result can be poor working conditions throughout the supply chain, putting human health and worker lives at risk.

Several major social responsibility issues:

Labor law violations
  • Excessive working hours
  • Lack of time off
  • Underage workers
  • Discrimination against women and migrant workers
  • Wage deductions for disciplinary reasons
  • Wage levels too low to cover basic living costs
  • Social insurance payments not made correctly by the employer
  • Inadequate systems for recording working hours
Lack of worker health- and safety provisions
  • Lack of necessary permits
  • Inadequate industrial hygiene
  • Inadequate protection against hazardous substances
  • Inadequate and inaccessible emergency exits
  • Inadequate safety measures in place
Forced labor
  • Lack of procedures to protect against human trafficking
  • Threat of physical or sexual violence
  • Restriction on movement
  • Bonded labor (debt slavery)
  • Withholding of wages
  • Retention of passports, ID or graduation
  • Threat of reporting to authorities
Freedom of association
  • Restrictions on employees to organize freely and negotiate with management

Complex supply chains making access and transparency difficult

For those who want to drive greater social responsibility, a major issue is the complexity of the IT product supply chain. The computer or smartphone can contain thousands of components and the network of subcontractors supplying components and raw materials covers many companies on several continents.

Production is a step-by-step process: from mines and oil fields to smelters where raw materials are refined, to the production of materials such as plastics, that are in turn supplied to component manufacturers. Finally, the components are assembled to the final product in one or several final assembly factories. The brand owner, whose logo you see on the product, rarely owns the factories where the product is manufactured. Which factories that are used may vary over time.

The complexity of the supply chain means that it is almost impossible for a purchasing organization to trace a product’s origin or monitor the conditions under which it’s made. Gaining insight into these issues requires specialist expertise, resources and access.

What you can do

Ask your vendor if factory workers can report problems anonymously without the risk of retaliation.

Demand that your supplier of IT products manages sustainability risks and drives continuous improvements in the supply chain.

Make sure that your supplier’s social responsibility claims are verified by an independent party. If you don’t have the resources to do it yourself, use a trustworthy sustainability certification.

How TCO Certified drives greater social responsibility

Criteria in TCO Certified create a framework that the IT industry can use to continuously and systematically improve working environments and conditions in the supply chain.

  • Manufacturing must follow the eight ILO core conventions and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the national laws for worker rights, health and safety, minimum wage and social security in the country of manufacture.
  • Brand owners must have an anti corruption management system, which is independently assessed. This helps them structure their work against corruption.
  • Working weeks must not exceed 60 hours including overtime, irrespective of local laws. Employees must have one day off every seven consecutive days.
  • We’re driving change where it is needed the most by categorizing factories depending on risk and requiring audits more often in high-risk factories than in low-risk factories.
  • We are transparent with the factory categories to give brand owners the opportunity to choose factories that work proactively with sustainability issues.
  • Brand owners must ensure that suppliers have a management system for continuous monitoring and improvement of health and safety practices in the factories (ISO 45001 or OHSAS 18001) and an environmental management system (ISO 14001 or EMAS).
  • Brand owners must have a public, global policy for the responsible sourcing of minerals, covering at least 3TG and cobalt. They must trace risk minerals through the supply chain, all the way down to the smelters and refiners and take part in a global program that works to support legitimate mining and local communities.
  • Workers in factories must wear protective equipment and be educated of the risks when using hazardous process chemicals.
  • The use of hazardous substances in products is restricted.
  • TCO Certified also supports positive development of social responsibility by gathering and sharing best practice examples that industry can learn from.

TCO Certified is the world’s most comprehensive sustainability certification for IT products, helping you make responsible product choices that drive the industry in a sustainable direction. Using TCO Certified also supports your organization in taking the next step in social and environmental responsibility.

Other sustainability issues connected to IT products
Conflict minerals used in IT products drive wars and human rights abuses
Hazardous substances in IT products — a human health and environmental risk
A growing, toxic waste stream where valuable finite resources are lost
The circular economy — a way of building a brighter and more resourceful future
Sources of information
  • The Global E-waste Monitor 2017. The United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association, 2017.
  • Andreas Rehn, Certification Manger, TCO Development.