Industry Market Trends

Sustainability Certification for Smartphones: How Useful Is It?

Apr 25, 2013

Credit: jannoon028. Credit: jannoon028.

If TCO Development's idea for certifying the sustainability of smartphones catches on, consumers will be able to throw in "corporate social responsibility," "environmental requirements" and "visual ergonomics" as comparison points between iPhones and Samsungs.

The new manufacturing certification criteria set is available in draft format for your perusal and comments during April, and TCO hopes to publish the criteria and start certifying in mid-May.

Smartphones: The logical next step.

TCO is a Stockholm-based third party sustainability certification company currently offering certification for such IT products as displays, notebooks, tablets, desktops, all-in-one PCs, projectors and headsets. Smartphones would be a logical next step.

It's still kind of a new thing. In June 2012 Lenovo was "the first brand to announce products that meet the new generation TCO Certified, including heightened CSR requirements," according to TCO officials, who certified the All-in-One PCs ThinkCentre M92z and M72z series with 20 inch and 23 inch displays for having "at least 50 percent post-consumer recycled plastics," as well as meeting other "environmental, social, and economic responsibility" standards.

Niclas Rydell, product and certification director for TCO Development, said the company is now hoping to provide "smartphone buyers and users with an easier way to choose devices that meet criteria for socially responsible manufacturing, minimal environmental impact and ergonomic design." Rydell said it will be sustainability certification which follows "guidelines of a third party certification, Type 1 eco label according to ISO14024."

With worldwide annual sales growth around 50 percent, smartphones represent, as TCO officials say, "the fastest growing of all IT product categories. An estimated one billion smartphones will be sold during 2014."

High production rate, "alarmingly" low recycling rate.

And according to TCO, such impressive growth has "sustainability challenges that must be addressed," since while computers and smartphones both have hazardous substances, smartphones get replaced a lot more often -- the average U.S. user replaces their device "every 18 months," TCO officials say, adding that "the recycling rate is alarmingly low," and a lot of smartphones are made in factories "where working conditions and wages are substandard."

The company says certification will "focus on driving greater social responsibility into the manufacturing of smartphones as well as reducing their impact on the environment and human health." To that end they'll look at the manufacturer's "commitment to international labour conventions, reduction of hazardous substances... as well as energy efficiency and ergonomic design."

Interestingly, TCO isn't certifying for SAR value yet. SAR, specific absorption rate, is how much radiation your head absorbs when on a cell phone. There are SAR ratings, the higher the rating the more radiation you're absorbing. According to they're usually expressed in units of watts per kilogram (W/kg) in either 1g or 10g of tissue.

The Criteria From 30,000 Feet

The criteria itself is broken down into five categories -- visual ergonomics, workload ergonomics, electrical safety, environmental requirements and corporate social responsibility. Obviously environmental requirements occupy the lion's share of criteria.

Visual ergonomics means considering possible health effects of the display, certifying for such things as acceptable visual levels "as determined by scientific research," statistics from tests or "manufacturers' knowledge and experience." This would include luminance levels and uniformity, color uniformity, screen color characteristics and other terribly technical terms.

Workload ergonomics include such considerations as "Will I get a rash from nickel or something like that from holding the phone a lot?" and "What about using a headset with this phone?"

Electrical safety certifies for the electrical design of the phone "with respect to its electrical insulation and other arrangements that are intended to prevent accidents resulting from contact with live components," and how likely the phone is to catch fire.

Credit: Stuart Miles. Credit: Stuart Miles.

Environmental requirements are divided into six areas:

Organization. This looks at the production phase, environmental management and Corporate Social Responsibility of the company. A TCO-certified environmental management system will be one where "the company shows concern for the environment and has chosen to work in a systematic way with constant improvement of the environmental performance of the company and its products in focus."

Climate. Energy consumption slots in here, since according to TCO "energy efficient equipment is an important and effective way to fight climate change." Whatever your views on anthropogenic global warming, energy efficiency's a noble goal. "To reduce energy consumption from the smartphone," TCO officials say, they'll certify that the external power supply (power adapter) "shall comply with the International Efficiency Marking Protocol for External Power Supplies."

Hazardous substances. Smartphones contain heavy metals, flame retardants and plastics. TCO will look at things like does this phone contain hexavalent chromium, halogenated substances such as flame retardants, PVC, plastics with chlorine and bromine as part of the polymer and other really scary-sounding stuff such as "phthalates." Batteries come in for particular scrutiny, as you'd expect, and TCO wants them to be easily exchangeable, among other things and free from lead, cadmium and mercury.

Recycling, product lifetime and CSR.

Product lifetime. They'll certify for various factors to extend the life of the product, since, well, the longer it lasts the fewer of them get thrown out. Accordingly TCO will require that the brand owner -- whose name is on the phone -- offer at least a one-year warranty and guarantees the availability of spare parts "for at least three years from the time that production ceases."

Preparation for recycling. Another big area of concern. TCO likes material coding, since with that "there is a better possibility for plastics to be recycled and used in new IT equipment." They're also big on producer take back systems where users can return the phones for recycling, with or without a fee associated with the service.

Packaging. Lots of hazardous substance are used in packaging, and there's just a ton of it choking landfills around the world. TCO will certify that "non-reusable packaging components weighing more than 5 grams shall be possible to separate into single material types without the use of tools."

So much for the environmental regulations. When it comes to corporate social responsibility, TCO will certify compliance with all sorts of OECD, ILO conventions, UN conventions, and local health and safety laws.

The certification checklist.

It all sounds wonderful, but frankly, so much of what TCO certifies is the validity of other certifications, that it's probably possible to find all of the certification they offer elsewhere. We suppose that the value of the TCO certification is that they pull it all together in one place, providing a checklist of certifications -- "The ILO certifies them in compliance, check; their manufacturing plant is ISO 14001 or EMAS certified, check; they've got a test report from a test laboratory we approve of, check; they've provide documented proof of third party audits, check; EICC certifies them, check; they've written and signed something saying they're telling the truth, check..."

Ultimately pretty much everything about a smartphone is already certified by someone else, but if it has a TCO certification, then you can be sure that someone else has said it's jumped through their hoops.