Consumers of IT products need to work harder to confirm the environmental and social credentials of the products they buy, a global benchmarking organisation has warned, as a new analysis finds 40 per cent of tech companies are greenwashing their practices with “false or misleading” claims.

'Greenwashing’ relates to the practice of companies talking up their credentials to portray themselves as being more environmentally responsible than they really are.

Many well-meaning companies had implemented product recycling policies, TCO Development global director of purchaser engagement Clare Hobby told Information Age, but “when it comes to technology, you’ve got about 80 per cent of your lifecycle emissions happening in manufacturing – so by the time the product lands on your desk, 80 per cent of those emissions have already happened.”

Yet with Australian businesses far removed from sweatshops in China and elsewhere, the upstream risks simply don’t register for most of us.

Companies “are still locked into these three or four-year replacement cycles,” Hobby said, “but I don’t think we quite have our eyes on the need to get voices into the supply chain and put the demand there. It becomes this hidden demon that people don’t know how to attack.”

TCO Development – which polices its TCO Certified rating using a global team of auditors that actively visit IT manufacturing sites to review their manufacturing, environmental and workforce policies – has documented a rogue’s gallery of deceptive practices by IT equipment manufacturers.

These include understating the average hours worked by their employees; forcing staff to work in unsafe buildings; and deceptive technical claims about specs such as battery life.

Unless companies can identify such issues buried in their IT supply chains, Hobby warns, environmental, social, governance (ESG) policies will be increasingly difficult to meet – potentially exposing brands to reputational and operational risk.

“We’ve got to move up the value chain,” she said, “and make manufacturers make things smarter, control the materials, and take care of human rights issues.”

50 shades of green

Chinese contract manufacturer Foxconn – which drew widespread condemnation for labour practices so intense and rigid that they drove many workers to suicide – highlight the risks of supply chains that compromise worker protections for cold, corporate efficiency.

Yet as end-of-supply-chain technology consumers, Australian companies have little more guidance about those practices than the “literally hundreds” of ‘ecolabels’ spruiking environmental quality certifications.

Yet despite “a common misconception that most ecolabels include mandatory independent verification of criteria compliance” most labels are self-administered and have little accountability – with greenwashing and ‘bluewashing’, in which manufacturers overstate their commitment to responsible social practices, is rife.

A recent global audit of 1,095 websites found that one-third of 74 audited Australian traders were using “vague claims and unclear language” around environmental credentials, with many hiding information or using own-brand ecolabels that weren’t backed by an accredited organisation.

“Ecolabels that do not independently verify product claims are not good enough for purchasers seeking to mitigate risks of contributing to harmful working conditions and negative environmental impacts,” the TCO Development report notes, flagging the European Union’s Green Public Procurement (GPP) policy’s reliance on verifiability, auditability, and comparability.

Australia’s blinkers are still on

The relatively new ISO 20400:2017 standard has emerged to help organisations “make sustainable purchasing a way of life” – providing clearer guidance on sustainability issues and segueing into the social-responsibility practices embodied in the ISO 26000 standard.

Yet despite individual sustainable procurement policies of departments like the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources – which purports to “consider the social impact of the way we spend money while still achieving value for money and reducing red tape” – Australian government policy is still focused on the end of the supply chain.

Despite its passage of legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act 2018, official sustainability guidance still positions value for money as “the core principle underpinning Australian Government Procurement”.

“Officials should employ sustainable practices when undertaking procurement,” the guidelines note, “such as promoting reduced energy consumption and minimising waste where possible.”

Top-down leadership is crucial to drive change throughout government and set an example for corporate tech buyers, Hobby said: “If the premier or prime minister don’t think it’s an important issue, it won’t filter down to procurement.”

Industry initiatives have put more weight behind stewardship initiatives, with the responsible packaging policies of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) – which has engaged more than 1500 Australian companies in an industry-wide 2018 plan to phase out single-use plastic by 2025 – already kicking out some brands for failing to meet their obligations.

The ACCC, for its part, has published guidelines around responsible environmental marketing and has taken companies including Volkswagen AG, Kimberly-Clark Australia and Woolworths with varying success.

Ultimately, TCO Development CEO Sören Enholm said, supply chain partners should work together to promote transparent eco-marketing credentials across their domain.

“Sustainability has gone from being a niche interest to becoming something that is central for so many,” he explained.

“When a large number of purchasers stand behind the same set of criteria, the industry can focus on relevant improvements that make a difference, instead of trying to meet lots of different requirements that may even contradict each other.”