In the 80s, computer monitors churned out horrible emissions so Sweden's Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation decided to do something about it. If you're at all familiar with technology, the chances are that you've run across a TCO Certification sticker on a monitor. It means it has been approved to the organisation's high standards.
There was a TCO sticker sitting on a huge Sony CRT got eating up desk space, unused, so TechEye gave a specially customised, one of a kind business card to TCO's Birgitta Halvarsson when we met her for lunch at Chez Gerard, Soho this week.
The origins of the TCO Certification were to reassure businesses that they could buy low emission, safer hardware with a reassurance on good image quality. By the mid nineties, it had introduced restrictions for harmful substances such as some flame retardants and been acknowledged by DisplaySearch for image quality. TCO spread beyond Sweden and became international very quickly thanks to the global nature of the IT industry.
Now TCO is moving a step further, Halvarsson tells us, into the realms of social responsibility.
This adds to other categories prioritised on TCO's list, usability, performance and envrionment. At the moment social responsibility conditions aren't as stringent as they would like but it's a step in the door.
Social responsibility means companies must assure and prove to TCO that workers on the supply lines adhere to legal policy and that they are looked after. Indeed it has close ties in East Asia, such from panel manufacturers in Taiwan through to consumer electronics companies in South Korea such as Samsung, and Lenovo in China. When questioned about manufacturer involvement with Foxconn Halvarsson was slightly nonplused but said it was something to look at - but Apple isn't big on TCO anyway. More on that later.
Halvarsson admits that social responsibility is difficult to police and certify but it's a step in the right direction. It has successfully pushed for better monitors and the removal of harmful components for electronics and doesn't see why it should stop there. The idea is that certification makes it easier, whether a business buyer or consumer, to pick products that are good for you and the environment, both physically, and now, socially.
Bizarrely, we're told, manufacturers such as Dell give TCO Certification on laptops a wide berth, though this is true for much of the industry, not just Dell. Why? It's dosh, they don't want to pay more, and consumers are buying into laptops, notebooks and netbooks regardless though there is both space and demand for certified portable computing. Companies are more willing to get their desktops, monitors and all-in-ones certified, but not laptops.
People don't ask about image quality on laptops because they're pretty and well marketed, and if they are not having this dicussion, there's no need for companies to eat into profits by raising it.
Some exceptions are Samsung and Lenovo, both of whom are always keen to work with TCO.
To go further on portable computing, what about smartphones? iPhones and their ilk are essentially ultra portable computers, too, so what about their emissions? Rags like The Daily Mail will run a phones and cancer story every couple of months if ideas are low, but the fact is a link cannot be entirely ruled out. It's been a consumer issue since the emergence of phones and there are so many conflicting points of view and experiments that we can't be sure.
But because the point is so controversial, manufacturers want to do anything they can to avoid talking about it. If it's likely to impact sales or worry consumers they don't want to market products from a health perspective. The brands have agreed amongst themselves not to. And that's why TCO hasn't had luck with phones.
Though with the explosion in the smartphone market it is something TCO may approach again.
Back to Apple - don't necessarily believe its green company claims. Greenpeace has acknowledged that Apple has made some real improvements, but aside from international policy such as the WEEE directive, it monitors and regulates its own green production lines. Aside from a few monitors many moons ago, Cupertino has not gone to TCO for emissions certification. One reason is that TCO stickers don't complement its sleek design department.
Speaking on the proper recycling and disposal of harmful substances, Halvarsson agrees with us when we suggest that it too is incredibly difficult to police. The nature of some economies, for example the waste disposal problem in Chennai, India, makes it testing to ensure safe disposal especially at the end of the logistics chain. But the cost of recycling in Sweden could be around 15 dollars for a monitor, compared to only one dollar in parts of India - the difference is clear and profits drive decisions, as usual.
As with harmful substances, the United Kingdom's National Measurement Office has something called the RoHS Directive which places a ban on proven, dangerous or environmentally unsound materials. We and the industry know, Halvarsson says, that waste is being exported to other countries and not disposed of properly. It's something we'll have to tackle as a unified planet for any real difference.
However, TCO says RoHS, while an admirable attempt, falls short by missing the bigger picture. Materials are identified on a case by case basis which means the process is long and newer substances may be missed - there can be workarounds.
What's in line for TCO? There's a chance with smart and embedded televisions on the way the TV display market will be next.