Sustainability issues prevalent in the IT industry are proving difficult to solve, despite growing demand for IT products that have been manufactured in a fair and environmentally sustainable way.
The Impacts and Insights 2019 report, from TCO Development, measured sustainability progress among brand owners with IT products certified according to the global sustainability certification, TCO Certified.
The study included 20 factories in Asia and South America, that have been audited twice during the time period 2015-2018. In the initial audits, 109 non-conformities to the criteria in TCO Certified were found and by the second audit, 84 of these, or 77%, were eliminated. Substantial improvements in factory working conditions have been made, affecting approximately 46,600 workers. However, excessive working hours and low wage levels are remaining challenges.
"The IT industry increasingly wants to improve working conditions in factories, but if a structured, long-term system for solving problems isn't in place, a number of problems may be detected in factory audits, but not necessarily solved," says Sren Enholm, CEO at TCO Development, the organisation behind TCO Certified.
"To solve these problems, factories must be required to make effective corrective action plans that are followed up regularly by independent auditors," says Enholm.
"Many issues, in particular within the area of health and safety, have a tendency to return. To avoid factory workers being exposed to the same hazard again, root causes must be found and corrective actions must be monitored also after closure."
Enholm says a system of consequences for brand owners is needed to ensure adequate progress.
"Sustainability work is resource-intensive and there is often a conflict of interest between fair working conditions and goals to minimise cost and time-to-market," he says.
"We put pressure on the IT industry and can withdraw certificates and restrict factories from manufacturing certified products if the criteria in TCO Certified are not met."
According to Enholm, industry engagement is key to solving sustainability problems.
"Brand owners and factories need to allocate enough resources to their sustainability work. During the time period measured in the report, 2015-2018, awareness and engagement in sustainability grew among both brand owner senior management and factory management, leading to faster progress and stricter requirements on sub-suppliers," he explains.
"As an independent organisation, we can both offer a structured platform to guide industry progress and push the pace of work," Enholm adds.
"We have an ongoing dialog with brand owner leadership and carry out interviews every year. This approach has been successful and we can see that industry awareness of sustainability issues is increasing."
The report also pointed out that change happens faster when brand owners using shared suppliers join together and place the same requirements on the factory owner.
"TCO Development has insight into the IT product supply chain and can coordinate IT brands to put pressure on shared suppliers as a collective effort," Enholm says.
"As more factories commit to the TCO Certified system and criteria, the span of industry maturity levels widens," he continues.
"With generation 8, we make it easier for IT brands to choose factories that work proactively with sustainability issues. By giving factories that prioritize sustainability a business advantage, we can speed up the shift towards a sustainable life cycle for IT products."