Social and environmental challenges in the IT product supply chain

Social responsibility is a continuing challenge throughout the IT supply chain. From raw materials extraction through to final assembly, working hours, health and safety and forced labor are examples of industry-wide issues that make computers and other electronics a high risk product category.

Like the textiles 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. 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, health issues, and even deaths.

There are several major areas of concern:

Labor law violations
  • Excessive working hours
  • Lack of time off
  • Underage workers
  • High proportion of migrant workers
  • Wage deductions for disciplinary reasons
Lack of worker health- and safety provisions
  • Lack of necessary permits
  • Inadequate industrial hygiene
  • Inadequate protection against hazardous materials
  • Inadequate and inaccessible emergency exits
  • Inadequate evacuation and other safety measures in place
Forced labor
  • Lack of procedures to protect against human trafficking
    involuntary labor
Freedom of association
  • Restrictions on employees to organize freely and negotiate with management

Complex supply chains making access and transparency difficult

A major issue is the complexity of the IT product supply chain. An average smartphone for example may consist of components and assemblies from as many as 60 different processes and suppliers. Monitoring and streamlining information and processes throughout this complex chain is difficult. Add the pressure to reduce cost and time to market and workers risk paying a human price for faster, higher performing devices.

For purchasers, grasping the scope of a product supply chain can be overwhelming. A notebook computer can contain thousands of components originating from around the world, making it almost impossible for a purchasing organization to trace its origin or monitor the conditions under which it’s made.

Gaining visibility into the supply chain is also difficult – requiring specialist expertise, resources and access rarely available to product purchasers.

Yet procurement is now increasingly asked to address supply chain responsibility as part of their purchasing criteria. How can purchasers reduce the social risks connected to the products they buy, when they don’t have access to verify supply chain conditions themselves?

What you can do

What you can do

Help put a spotlight on the issue by asking your vendors what they do to manage risks and drive improvements in the supply chain.

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

Choose products that are manufactured in factories where the owners work continuously and proactively to improve the conditions for workers.

How TCO Certified drives responsibility in the supply chain

Criteria in TCO Certified create a framework that the IT industry can use to continuously and systematically improve working conditions in manufacturing facilities. The aim is to promote sustainable development in IT product manufacturing, specifically focusing on long-term improvement of working environments and conditions.

  • Manufacturing must follow ILO’s eight core conventions and UN’s 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.
  • 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.
  • Brand owners must have an anti corruption management system, which is independently assessed. This helps them structure their work against corruption.
  • 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 work to support legitimate mining and local communities.
  • Brand owners must ensure that suppliers have a management system for controlling and continual improvement of health and safety practices in the factories (ISO 45001 or OHSAS 18001) and an environmental management system (ISO 14001 or EMAS).
  • The use of hazardous substances is restricted.
  • We are transparent with the factory categories to give brand owners the opportunity to choose factories that work proactively with sustainability issues.
  • Workers in factories must wear protective equipment and be educated of the risks when using hazardous process chemicals.
  • TCO Certified also supports positive development 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.