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Taking responsibility for supply chain CSR

As global leaders and delegates from 195 countries descended upon Paris at the end of November for the COP21 UN conference, the issue of climate change was once again brought to the world’s attention. While there is a general consensus amongst the leaders of nations that something needs to be done to tackle global emissions and rising sea levels, there is more to consider than the prevention of climate change alone.

The environment is not limited to the gases that separate the Earth and Space, and in order for the Earth to remain a viable habitat, as well as to improve the quality of life for its inhabitants, the way we run industry must change. This is particularly true for the electronics industry. The electronics industry no doubt has its benefits for consumers, however there are a couple of things it needs to come to terms with.

E-waste - discarded electronic products including laptops, displays, smartphones, tablets and televisions - is currently the world’s fastest growing waste stream. The United Nations University’s (UNU) 2014 Global E-Waste Monitor report found that in 2014, the total amount of e-waste generated was 41.8 million tonnes, and is expected to rise by almost 25 per cent by 2018. The same report found that less than 60 per cent of the world’s population was subject to e-waste legislation.

On top of this, shorter product life cycles, continuous demand for new technologies and strong competition amongst IT brands means that companies face increasing pressure to deliver new devices faster and at a lower cost. The lower cost can come from more advanced technology used in the supply-chain, and manufacturing at scale, however it unfortunately and often does get filtered down to those with the least influence and autonomy in an organisation. The lower costs and faster time-to-market delivery of IT products often lead to long working hours and inadequate health and safety measures for factory labourers.

Furthermore, the unprecedented demand for precious metals used in IT products, combined with the fact that the extraction of raw materials often occurs several tiers away from IT brands, means that money paid for materials can go to conflict minerals from war-torn countries.

Most people agree that there are certain conditions that are bad or at the very least not preferable. The difficulty, however, is building and acting on that consensus, and determining a plan of action that can eventually bring about the end-goal of justice, health and safety for workers across the globe.

Working conditions in electronics manufacturing remains a widespread challenge, however there is evidence of progress. More manufacturers are becoming involved in factory audits, and implementing codes of conduct for a bottom line of minimal working conditions. While there are companies that genuinely want to be a positive influence in the labour market, many need a ‘nudge’ or an incentive from a consumer demand point-of-view.

Third party certifiers like TCO Development offer consumers and IT procurers a method of defining relevant environmentally and socially responsible criteria, helping them to establish a code of conduct, carry out factory audits and follow-up non conformities with tailored corrective action plans.

In November of this year, we launched the New Generation TCO Certified criteria, which in terms of improving conditions for workers, offers a structured process that helps drive, implement and follow-up social responsibility improvements in the manufacturing of IT products. The criteria are based on international guiding standards as well as legislation in the countries where the manufacturing takes place.

Many organisations including governments, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations (UN) have devoted time and effort into researching and establishing specific codes of conduct for employers to follow. A TCO Certified product means its manufacturers must follow:

- The ILO’s eight Core Conventions
- The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 32
- The national laws for worker rights, health and safety in the country of manufacture
- The national laws for minimum wage and social security in the country of manufacture

Every three years, TCO Development reviews the criteria and procedures in TCO Certified with procurers, manufacturers and subject matter experts in order to ensure that the most pressing sustainability challenges associated with the life cycle of electronic products are addressed. This year marks the third time socially responsible manufacturing has featured as an aspect of the criteria since the first time in 2009. From our most recent analysis and discussions with stakeholders and experts, we see a few areas where improvement is needed within the new criteria.

- Improved brand owner engagement in minimising non-conformities with the code of conduct throughout the supply chain
- Improved brand owner action to resolve existing non-conformities they are made aware of, e.g. in the third party factory social audit
- Annual review with the brand owner representative responsible for code of conduct implementation and communication
- A published policy on conflict minerals and a commitment to at least one initiative aimed at establishing a conflict-free supply chain of Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten and Gold (3T+G)

Third party certifications are indeed just one way of addressing these issues, and it is a process that is neither instant nor perfect. It does however offer a quantifiable way of improving a procurer company’s CSR, by doing more to ensure that a company’s IT investment is not indirectly funding exploitative industry practices.

Niclas Rydell, certification director, TCO Development

Image Credit: Wikipedia