Kompass Nachhaltigkeit

Öffentliche Beschaffung


Social and ecological risks in the supply chain of computers

Short overview (in German)

What you should take into consideration when purchasing computers

Computers and laptops, printers and scanners, beamers and monitors: To all intents and purposes, everyday municipal administration, but also the running of schools and hospitals, is virtually unthinkable without IT today. Given their large volume of orders, public procurement actors have significant potential for nudging the IT industry towards sustainability. At the same time, cities and municipalities have dedicated collection points where people can hand in their used computer equipment. Nonetheless, recycling quotas are low.

However, these devices contain plenty of raw materials that, if recycled, could help reduce global resource extraction and protect the environment. What is more, the extractive industries are rife with reports of labour and human rights abuses. This also applies to the production of IT hardware across widely extended supply chains. The upshot: The fewer new IT devices procured, the better. It is also important to optimise their usage from an energy efficiency perspective.

Find out more about the social, human rights and ecological risks of IT production. Public procurement can generate vital incentives for more sustainable production while also pioneering the long-term use, repair, collection and recycling of IT.

    Further Information

    For general information on integrating sustainability into the procurement process, see here.

    An online tool to assess the local human rights situation by "Helpdesk Business & Human Rights" is available here.

    Municipal best practice examples of sustainable procurements of computers, see here (German only).

    Further information on computers (in German):

    Supply chain risks of computers in detail

    Supply chain in detail

    Click on the individual stages in the information graphic on the left to learn more about the ecological and social risks when purchasing computers.

    01 Extraction

    It takes hundreds of different raw materials to produce a laptop or computer. And many more metals lie hidden beneath the plastic, glass and ceramic casings, including gold, cobalt and lithium for batteries, platinum for hard drives and rare earths for electromagnets. The extraction of these and other raw materials entails numerous environmental, social and human rights risks. Examples include:

    Environmental risks

    • Waste, toxins and other residues that contaminate the air, soil and water 
    • Release of radioactive substances during rare earth extraction
    • Greenhouse gases and sulphur dioxide emissions 
    • High energy consumption
    • High water consumption
    • Risk of dam or dike failures enabling contaminated sludge from mineral extraction to flood the surrounding areas
    • Loss of land, increasing deforestation and blasting of mountains
    • Negative impacts on biodiversity

    Social risks

    • Funding conflicts/armed groups through minerals extraction and trading (conflict minerals)
    • Displacement of people from their homes, cropland and pastureland
    • Noise and vibration from industrial plant operations and dust dispersion due to intensive use of heavy-duty vehicles
    • Corruption and tax evasion
    • Violent suppression of protests
    • Human trafficking, forced labour and child labour
    • Violation of the right to free assembly and the right to collective bargaining
    • Lack of workplace accident protection and insufficient safety standards  

    Further reading (in German)

    02 Processing

    Metals are made from ores, plastic from crude oil: Stage two of the value chain processes raw materials, turning metals, plastics and other components into so-called ‘intermediate goods’ and ‘semi-finished products’. This includes cables, circuit boards or processors. Substances that are harmful to health are used in many stages of processing, including carcinogenic solvents like benzene or heavy metals like cadmium or lead. The semi-conductor industry in particular uses between 500 and 1,000 different chemicals, many of which are highly noxious.

    Further processing also often involves environmental and social risks. Examples include:

    Environmental risks

    • Waste, toxins and other residues that contaminate the air, soil and water
    • Greenhouse gases and sulphur dioxide emissions 
    • High energy consumption
    • High water consumption

    Social risks

    • Displacement of people from their homes, cropland and pastureland
    • Noise and vibrations from industrial plant operations and dust dispersion due to intensive use of heavy-duty vehicles
    • Corruption or tax evasion
    • Violation of the right to free assembly and the right to collective bargaining
    • Underpaid workers
    • Lack of workplace accident protection and insufficient safety standards  
    • Negative health impacts due to use of noxious substances

    Furhter reading (in German):

    03 Manufacturing

    IT hardware manufacturers profit from outsourcing production. In keeping with the logic of ‘downward competition’, production often takes place where human rights and social and environmental standards are at their lowest. While big corporate players in industrialised countries get the lion’s share of the profit, actual hardware assembly is mostly left to factories in East and Southeast Asia. IT hardware production is a branch of industry that is known for its extremely precarious employment conditions. So-called ‘flexible on-demand production’ forms part of a business model that fosters the abuse of what are already low environmental and social requirements.

    Examples of negative impacts include:

    Environmental risks

    • High energy consumption
    • High materials consumption
    • High levels of water consumption and land use
    • Inadequate treatment of wastewater
    • Generation of hazardous and non-hazardous waste
    • Toxins and other residues, including dust-particle formation, that contaminate the air, soil and water

    Social risks

    • Violation of the right to free assembly and the right to collective bargaining
    • Workers are underpaid and have short-term contracts; temporary employment; virtually no leave entitlements; extended working hours (up to 80h a week); unpaid overtime
    • Child and forced labour as well as ‘debt slavery’ of migrant workers
    • Lack of safety standards
    • Adverse health effects due to lack of lighting and air conditioning or lack of ventilation in the production areas
    • Adverse health effects due to contact with toxic chemicals
    • Fatigue and strain due to monotonous assembly line work in a static posture
    • Environmental and social standards are not monitored consistently or the companies actively block such activities

    Further reading

    04 Consumption

    IT hardware production accounts for the largest proportion of energy and resource consumption. But equipment usage is also energy intensive: In Germany, IT-driven electricity consumption in 2017 accounted for some two per cent of overall energy consumption. In spite of efforts to make individual devices more energy efficient, this trend is an upward one – computing hubs, server infrastructure and mobile and stationary end devices are all increasing in number and performance capacity. For this reason, purchasers need to take account of energy efficiency criteria when buying both hardware and software. Software is a key determining factor for the ICT carbon footprint. It influences energy requirements and can cause hardware to be withdrawn from service ahead of schedule (‘software-induced obsolescence’).

    The carbon footprint can be minimised during the equipment’s service life, essentially by sourcing green electricity and ensuring the equipment is used for as many years as possible. Thus, at the procurement stage already, it is crucial to factor in the equipment’s capacity for repair and its guaranteed eligibility for software updates over a number of years. Device compatibility is another criterion that has to be met to prevent working IT from being prematurely sold or discarded. Also, when procuring IT equipment, it is important not to buy any unnecessary add-ons, since these are most likely already on hand.

    Numerous negative environmental and social impacts occur during usage, including:

    Environmental risks

    • Energy consumption 
    • Resource consumption, especially from excessive packaging materials and the unsolicited supply of battery chargers and adapters etc.
    • Resource wastage due to the premature sale rather than repair of IT hardware

    Social risk

    • Data protection

    Further reading (in German)


    05 Recycling & Disposal

    Waste from electric and electronic appliances – which includes IT hardware – constitutes one of the fastest growing streams of waste in the world. And yet recycling quotas are extremely low. For example, large quantities of European electrowaste are dismantled in the West African states of Ghana and Nigeria under sub-standard environmental and social conditions. At the same time, terms such as ‘urban mining’ and ‘anthropogenic stock’ underscore recycling’s potential, especially for the recovery of metals. To date, the focus has mainly been on economically motivated recycling approaches. However, we need to develop a holistic approach that prioritises environmental and social aspects along the lines of a circular economy. In this context, design4recycling is of enormous importance: that is to say, product development must already stress an item’s repairability and recycling capacity.
    At the same time, collection quotas need to be increased. Awareness-raising work and information campaigns, which can also be promoted as part of ‘education for sustainable development’ have a key role to play here. In addition to the recycling depots that municipalities are obliged to operate, they could, in many places, also set up readily accessible ‘electrowaste containers’ or operate ‘mobile hazardous waste units’. Furthermore, they could support community repair workbenches and independent repair workshops.

    Environmental risks

    • Emissions and contamination from waste incineration and the disposal of non-recyclable parts and packaging materials in landfills
    • Environmental hazards due to the incorrect disposal of lead-acid batteries
    • Permanent loss of plastics and metals, including rare earths, as a result of inadequate recycling
    • High energy consumption involved in recycling process
    • Export of used IT hardware from Europe to the African continent where toxins are released into the environment when burning IT hardware to recover metals
    • The inappropriate disposal of products containing mercury, cadmium, chrome, perfluorinated hydrocarbons (PFCs), and other noxious agents, pollutes the air, soil and water

    Social risks

    • In African states, child labour is used to dismantle old devices
    • Health is endangered by burning cable sheaths and plastic casings, resulting in the release and inhalation of carcinogenic toxins

    Further reading (in German)

    06 Transport

    Iron ore extraction in Brazil, bauxite mining in Guinea, copper from Peru; production in Hungary, Mexico and China. This is what an IT hardware supply chain might look like. Getting from raw materials extraction to the finished product generally entails long transport distances by ship, truck and train. Fuel consumption and emissions negatively impact the environment and stress the climate in a way that is also harmful to human health. Transport with heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks is regulated by the Euro 6 emissions standard (Commission Regulation EU/582/2011), and procurers should demand compliance from hauliers.