Jo Southall moves in for a close up of digital camera companies.
In March 2010 a number of European consumers’ associations published the results of a substantial research project into digital cameras.(25) Part of the research looked at the ethical performance of the companies involved and, unusually for a consumer report, involved visiting manufacturers in the Far East to check on the veracity of claims around the ethics of their supply chains.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, four of the biggest brands refused outright to have anything to do with the project. These four were Olympus, Fujifilm, Kodak and Pentax. Consumers are therefore left to draw their own conclusions about how confident these four companies felt about opening up the ethics of their operations to independent scrutiny. None of them are recommended as ethical best buys in our report either.
Two companies, Sony and Canon, participated to some degree in the broader project but researchers were ‘absolutely forbidden access to the workplaces to carry out checks’.(26) Similar conclusions can probably be drawn here too.
What is interesting though is the response of the four companies which did permit access to manufacturing facilities.
Nikon – researchers visited a production factory in Indonesia and a components factory in China.
Casio – researchers visited a production factory in China and a components factory in Malaysia.
Samsung – researchers visited production factories in China and Korea and a components factory in China.
Panasonic – researchers visited a production factory in China and a components factory in Japan.
Of these four companies Nikon was praised by researchers for collaborating fully and openly and demonstrating the best standards they saw. Casio, Samsung and Panasonic received an average rating. Casio totally opened up its factories in China and Malaysia but was weaker on the internal monitoring systems it had in place. Panasonic lost marks for blocking interviews with workers and for preventing access to other details within factories. Of course, it should be noted that, all these companies will have many other supplier factories which it was not possible for researchers to visit for this report.
We have summarised the findings of the European consumers’ associations’ research in the table below. Because of the importance and timing of this research, we have also taken account of these rankings in our own best buy advice in this report. Casio and Nikon were already towards the top of our own table – which to some degree vindicates both research methods. Ricoh were not covered in the European consumers’ associations’ research.
As we reported in the mobile phone buyers’ guide, companies’ exploitation of ‘conflict minerals’ for electronic products plays a very significant role in conflict and harm to wildlife in areas such as the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). At least one of these minerals, coltan, is commonly used in camera lenses in the form of tantalum.(1)
Much of the industry’s response to the problem of conflict minerals has been through the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC). In terms of this report, only Sony and Samsung are members. Sony is involved in an EICC project working on the difficult issue of traceability of metals such as tin and tantalum. As well as outlining the challenges the industry faces with complex supply chains, the EICC Statement on Minerals5 makes an interesting point: that “commercial agreements between suppliers in multiple tiers [often] limit disclosure of sourcing information to end-users”.
Undeterred, in November 2009, EICC and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative joined forces with some mining companies to develop a certification system for coltan, to be trialled in the DRC.(6)
Samsung was the only company to be found with a policy on coltan(7), albeit one that only applied to its Telecommunication Business and had significant gaps in its scope. Panasonic takes the position that a multi-stakeholder approach is needed and that its own involvement in round tables and the development of ISO26000 (a social responsibility standard expected to be announced in 2010) will achieve this.(8) It remains to be seen if these activities will result in concrete change on the ground. Casio states that mining for metals used in electronic components is damaging the environment, but does not commit to any action on this issue.
No mention of the problems with mining or the Democratic Republic of Congo could be found on the other companies websites, apart from Canon and Nikon, where the subject only crops up because it is the focus of, in Canon’s case, an exhibition that the company sponsored and in Nikon’s case, where a photo concerning malnutrition, children and orphans won the Grand Prize in its photo competition!(9)
Taking photos didn’t used to be such a big deal. Fewer people owned cameras and photos were taken mainly to commemorate special events like holidays and birthdays. Since the digital explosion it has become more common to own a camera and taking photos has become a bigger part of many people’s lives.
Some people now choose not to buy a camera because they already have a mobile phone with a camera function, or they upgrade to one that has. This in theory should be a more sustainable option, as it results in consuming less hardware. Other options include: sharing a camera, buying second hand, and not buying one at all – most human beings come with visual memory as standard!
Called by some the ‘effluent of the affluent’, the toxic tide of waste electronic products is also a significant concern. As we saw in the mobile phone buyers’ guide, electronic goods are being burnt in the ‘developing’ world to make it easier to recover the copper within (and to reduce the volume of waste). Scant attention is paid to health and environmental concerns, and the work is sometimes undertaken by children.(11)
The Basel Action Network campaigns on this issue and includes the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in its Hall of Shame for ‘actively working to undermine the Basel Convention’s Ban Decision and Amendment’ (which was designed to end the dumping of hazardous wastes from rich to poorer nations).(12) The following companies are members of the ICC: Sony, Samsung, Canon, Fujifilm, and Panasonic (under its former name Matsushita Electric). As the ICC does not publish a full members list on its website (and the companies themselves cannot be relied on to include this information on their websites), it is possible that the other companies on the table are also members. ICC membership earns a company a half mark in the Political Activities category.
Almost none of the companies in this report were upfront about the toxic trash issue. Samsung did provide information on its website about its methods (including auditing) for safer recycling of consumer electronics, but this only applies to the goods it receives through its take-back scheme. A few of the other companies reported on the amount of WEEE(13) they had received.
So that’s what is happening at the ‘end of the pipe’, but how about minimising the use of toxics in the first place? Greenpeace’s Greener Guide to Electronics gives a detailed assessment of Sony, Samsung and Panasonic’s performance on toxics (and aspects of energy and e-waste). The other camera companies rated by us were not covered in Greenpeace’s report.
In terms of toxics reduction in digital cameras:
• Nikon sells a camera with wire sheathing that is almost PVC-free.
• Olympus sell a camera where “no polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is used in the electrical insulation of interconnection and structural materials”.
• Panasonic sell three models of camera that are ‘100% PVC-free*’, but this claim only refers to the main body of the product and excludes a resin binder containing PVC- vinyl acetate copolymer
• Sony sells several cameras that are PVC and BFR-’free’, where “PVCs are not used in casings and cables for internal wiring” and there is “no use of BFRs in casing and main PWBs [printed wiring boards] of products”
All the other companies mention toxics in their sustainability reports (except Hoya who make Pentax cameras).
All of the companies were also involved in developing nanotechnologies. Almost all of them neglected to mention this in their sustainability reports. Where it was mentioned, it was as a sales pitch rather than an attempt to address the concerns that have been raised about nanotechnologies. Given that some of the companies are also involved in military supply and that there is an overlap between these two industries, their involvement in nanotechnologies is a cause for even greater concern.
Although some of the above may make grim reading, in the companies’ sustainability reports it’s all sweetness and light, that is, as long as you don’t think too hard about what they’re actually saying.
Read the small print and none of them actually claims to be totally free of PVC or BFR (brominated flame retardants). The Panasonic website provides a list of products, including digital cameras, that are not just PVC-free, but ‘100% PVC-free models*’. Hidden behind that cheeky little asterisk are restrictions on which parts of the camera the claim refers to.
Many claim eco credit for their attempts to make cameras smaller and lighter, but it’s unlikely that the motivation behind this work is wholly derived from the goal of shaving a fraction from production and transport emissions thanks to the product being a few millimetres thinner.
The electronics sector has also come under fire for the use of business models based on planned obsolescence. Indications that this is changing were not common but notably Ricoh stated that it was taking action on durability and, more unusually, planned to incorporate environmental debt into the company’s financial accounts.
Olympus and Sony were two companies that have published Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) of their digital cameras. From the approximately 12.4 kg-CO2 consumed in the manufacture of a Sony digital camera, 11.4 kg-CO2 apparently came from materials and parts, with the remainder from manufacturing. In contrast, the Olympus LCA showed that 48.1% of the impact was from logistics (distribution presumably), and 37.3% from manufacturing. In both cases, no evidence of independent verification of the assessments could be found.
When it comes to demonstrating responsible practices regarding workers’ rights in supply chains, the electronics sector clearly lags behind sectors such as clothing and supermarkets. The issue hardly gets a mention in their publicly available documents, which is only made more striking in comparison with the amount of environmental information most of them provide.
Nikon,(19) Fujifilm,(20) Olympus and Panasonic,(21) all gain a half mark in the Nuclear Power category from sales of monitoring and/or optical equipment to the industry in the last 5 years.
Pentax,(22) Fujifilm,(23) Olympus, Kodak and Nikon(24) all score half marks in the Arms and Military supply category for their sale of consumer products to the military. Sony and Samsung(24) score a full mark in this category for the sale of more specialist equipment to the military, in Samsung’s case this included the sale of satellite and fighter plane equipment through its subsidiary Samsung Aerospace Industries.
Fujifilm and Kodak gain a mark in the Animal Rights category for their use of gelatin,(18) a slaughterhouse by-product, in film.
Samsung double campaign shame
Samsung stood out as the company currently targeted most by campaigners:
1) Greenpeace are campaigning against Samsung reneging on promises it made as part of its participation in the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics.
Sign Greenpeace’s Samsung toxics Twitter petition
2) The international Samsung Accountability Campaign demands that Samsung accept responsibility for the deaths of young workers from occupational cancer.(17)
Sign the Samsung Accountability Campaign petition.
Groups campaigning on mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
Raise Hope for Congo
Make IT Fair
Groups campaigning on e-waste transfers to the developing world:
Basel Action Network
We thank International Consumer Research and Testing for permitting us to reproduce data from their March 2010 Report.
Thanks also to Iza Kruszewska of Greenpeace for additional information.
Pentax is now owned by Hoya Corporation which does not issue a sustainability report.
The Aiwa brand is owned by Sony. Digital cameras are no longer sold under this brand.
Konica Minolta sold its camera business to Sony. Digital cameras are no longer sold under this brand.
2 December 2009 “EICC & GeSI join with tantalum supply chain representatives to develop a responsible sourcing certification program.”
5 www./PDF/EICC Statement on Minerals.pdf 6. EICC press release
9 http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=EventDetailAct&eventID=23,http://www.nikon.com/ about/news/2005/0711_npci_01.htm
11 Greenpeace report “Chemical contamination at e-waste recycling and disposal sites” August 2008
13 Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment
14 ENDS Report 400 May 2008: More energy-using goods come under the spotlight
15 ENDS Report 409 February 2009: Energy-using products eco-design gathers pace
16 Clean Clothes Campaign “Looking for a Quick Fix: How weak social auditing is keeping workers in sweatshops” November 2005
18 www.fujifilm.co.uk 5 March 2010
19 www.nikon.co.jp, April 2005
20 http://home.fujifilm.com, April 2005
21 2007 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Handbook
22 www.pentaxtech.com, April 2005
23 www.fujinon.co.jp, August 2006, www.ffei.co.uk, August 2006
24 2007 edition of Jane’s International Defence Directory
25 see e.g Appareils Photo Compacts. Test-Achats 540. Mars 2010.
26 Altroconsumo March 2010.