Kompass Nachhaltigkeit

Öffentliche Beschaffung


Social and ecological risks in the supply chain of stationery

Short overview (in German)

What you should take into consideration when purchasing stationery

Office supplies are an essential part of public procurement. Risks in the supply chain for areas of office equipment such as IT hardware and office furniture are covered by relevant product groups in the Sustainability Compass (computers and wood and wood products). For office supplies, the product group paper is available so far. Other important subgroups in the area of office supplies are covered here: pens, pencils and stationery, filing systems and other office supplies (e.g. ink pads, rubber bands/erasers, stickers/tape and toner cartridges). 

One focus is on the purchase of environmentally sound products. This is sometimes a great challenge due to the large number of ingredients and recyclable materials contained in office supplies. A particularly important aspect is biodegradability, the use of renewable raw materials and the possibility of refilling and recycling the end products. It is also not always possible to guarantee social standards during the extraction and processing of the raw materials used in the products. Therefore, when purchasing, pay attention to transparent supply chains and, if possible, to the regionality of the products. Certifications and labels can provide additional information on environmental and social standards (see e.g. the standard comparison tool).

On average, in 2019 each person in Germany spent 179 euros on paper, stationery and other office supplies. Sales are primarily made by wholesalers, who have a market share of 37.8 %. However, the market share of online retail is growing steadily, with a total market volume of 12.8 billion euros in 2018. Of this, stationery accounted for 918 million euros, for instance. Growth is forecast for the sale of pencils, coloured pencils/crayons and text markers in particular.

    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 office supplies, see here (German only).

    Further information on office supplies (German only):

    Supply chain risks of stationery in detail

    Supply chain in detail

    (according to UBA)

    Click on the individual stages in the information graphic on the left to learn more about the ecological and social risks when procuring office supplies.

    01 Extraction

    Numerous different raw materials are required to produce the various office supplies. The basic materials metal, wood, plastic and rubber are usually the main components. Since rubber is largely obtained from natural rubber, which comes from rubber trees, similar environmental and social challenges apply to rubber as to wood and paper. In stationery and other office supplies, dyes, solvents and preservatives, such as those found in the ink of pens, markers, adhesives and printing inks, also play a major role.

    This means that the conditions and risks in the extraction of raw materials are heterogeneous – and material-specific rather than industry-specific. There is now a diverse range of durable and organically-based alternative products for office supplies, although sustainability criteria must also be considered (e.g. wood, paper).

    Environmental risks

    • Office supplies made of plastic and containing solvents, preservatives and dyes: use of chemicals, consumption of crude oil, high energy requirement
    • Office supplies made of wood, rubber or cardboard/paper: deforestation (including illegal logging), threat to biodiversity, soil damage, negative impacts on local and global climate 
    • Office supplies made of metal or with components made of metal: land consumption, deforestation, use of toxic substances, pollution of soil and water, exploitation of groundwater resources, destruction of biotopes, high energy consumption 

    Social risks

    • Office supplies made of wood, rubber or cardboard/paper: threats to the livelihoods of surrounding communities (especially indigenous peoples) through deforestation, poor working conditions, inadequate safety precautions and accidents during extraction
    • Metal office supplies: threats to the livelihoods of local communities (especially indigenous peoples), land evictions and resource conflicts, support of armed conflicts, poor working conditions, inadequate safety precautions and accidents, damage to health from heavy metal poisoning
    • Office supplies made of plastic and containing solvents, preservatives and dyes: inadequate safety precautions, damage to health caused by toxic fumes/hazardous substances

    02 Processing

    Given the heterogeneity of the products, it is almost impossible to generalise about processing conditions and risks. Leading European manufacturers are already paying increasing attention to developing and maintaining environmental and social standards at their international production sites. These are located primarily in areas of Eastern Europe, South and Central America, and Southeast Asia. 

    Nevertheless, there is a lack of transparency in disclosing concrete processing stages and possible risks during production. Particularly in South America and Southeast Asia, generally low production standards still prevail, resulting in the environmental and social risks listed below. In general, preference should be given to items that have been produced in countries with high environmental and social standards, or that include labels demonstrating compliance with such standards. 

    During the manufacturing process, packaging is also produced. Especially in the case of small and short-lived products such as office supplies, this is disposed of as waste after purchase. Therefore, choose office supplies with as little packaging as possible. Furthermore, organically-based or recyclable packaging may also be an option. 

    Environmental risks

    • Use of problematic additives (e.g. fillers, plasticisers, toxic chemicals) in the processing of raw materials, e.g. phthalates for the application of paints and varnishes
    • Pollution of air, soil and water as well as low energy efficiency and waste of resources at production sites due to lack of environmental standards
    • Oversized packaging and/or packaging made of difficult-to-recycle and non-biodegradable materials  

    Social risks

    • Low wages and late payment, excessive working hours and forced overtime, lack of protection against dismissal and lack of employee representation
    • Damage to health due to lack of safety precautions when handling chemicals and machinery
    • Unacceptable conditions in factory accommodation

    03 Consumption

    One key challenge in the consumption phase is ensuring the safe use of office supplies and excluding the use of harmful substances. The EU regulation concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) already requires European distributors to submit data and a risk assessment on the chemicals contained in their products. 

    Paints and varnishes in stamps, stationery, adhesives and printer cartridges should not contain additives of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead, nickel or chromium (VI), as these are toxic to the human body. Adhesives should also avoid solvents comprised of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and preservatives of the isothiazolinones group. Possible consequences of the above-mentioned ingredients can be damage to the liver and kidneys, allergies and irritation of the respiratory tract.

    Especially when buying printer cartridges, cheap duplicates should also be avoided, as these are often illegal cartridge copies that contain substances which are harmful to health. In 2018, high concentrations of the banned toxic flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE) were detected in 8 out of 9 cartridge copies tested by the TÜV. Furthermore, cheap products often cannot be recycled, which reduces the service life of the cartridges.

    As far as possible, consider the useful life of office supplies as a general point when purchasing. For ballpoint pen refills, for example, the Industrieverband Schreiben, Zeichnen, Kreatives Gestalten e.V. has issued recommendations for minimum refill capacities. Always give preference to products with refill mechanisms over disposable products. This applies not only to stationery, but also to ink pads, glue rollers and notebooks, to which new pages can be added, for example. 

    Environmental risk

    • Low useful life due to the purchase of disposable products instead of refillable alternatives and/or the purchase of products with a low capacity or no minimum capacity (e.g. stationery, toners)

    Social risk

    • Health hazards due to harmful ingredients, e.g. solvents, preservatives and dyes

    04 Disposal

    The disposal of office supplies can be problematic, primarily from an environmental point of view. When buying products, pay attention to their recyclability. For example, up to 80% of original printer cartridges can already be recycled. In Germany, however, about 90% of empty ink cartridges are disposed of as waste and only 10% are recycled. Office supplies made of plastics (e.g. transparent films, stationery covers) should also be recycled as far as possible, as it can take over 1,000 years for them to decompose in landfills. 

    If products are disposed of after use, care should be taken to dispose of them properly. Office supplies often contain several recyclable materials that must be disposed of separately. For example, a cardboard file may be protected with a plastic coating, and also contain iron for the fixing and leveraging mechanisms. Solvent-based adhesives and paints and varnishes containing hazardous substances must also be taken to hazardous waste collection points, as disposing of them as general waste can cause environmental damage such as groundwater contamination.  

    Environmental risks

    • Environmental pollution due to toxic ingredients (e.g. solvents, preservatives and dyes) if not disposed of in accordance with regulations 
    • Lack of recycling facilities and structures (e.g. no return systems for toner) and poorly recyclable materials

    05 Transport

    Given the wide variety of raw materials used in the production and processing of office supplies, it is not possible to generalise about the transport routes. However, the raw materials are often obtained from outside of Europe, and processing also takes place in large parts of the world. Hence by the time the produced office supplies are sold and shipped in Germany, they have usually been transported across long distances. This entails a burden on the environment due to exhaust gases and the consumption of fuel.