In the Northwest of China lies a scenic territory called Xinjiang. An important point on the ancient silk-route, Xinjiang is decorated with picturesque mountains and ruins of ancient bazaars.
In the context of solar power, Xinjiang is the region that produces nearly half of the world’s polysilicon supply - the essential raw material used to make solar panels.
Although this sounds impressive, researchers from the Sheffield Hallam University published an unsettling report last year - shedding light on the use of forced labour in the Xinjiang province. The report also revealed how this “has ripple effects throughout international solar supply chains.”
The use of solar power is an act of moving towards a better world, but if it comes at the cost of human rights, then it is clearly unjustifiable. On the brighter side, the solar energy world has taken notice of forced labour and has started taking steps to right this issue - whether it is Xinjiang or anywhere else. Here’s a look at how we are moving away from forced labour in solar.
SEIA Solar Industry Forced Labour Prevention Pledge
In March 2022, led by SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association), 310 solar companies signed a pledge that promises freeing the solar supply chain of forced labour. The pledge states the signing companies’ firm opposition to forced labour, and also claims to support the development of a traceability protocol - a tool for identifying the source of raw materials.
The signing companies includes solar giants such as SunPower, LG Electronics, Enphase, etc. It also includes a number of small to medium sized solar manufacturers and installers.
SEIA Supply Chain Traceability Protocol
In April 2021, SEIA released the supply chain traceability protocol, a tool aimed at increasing solar supply chain transparency. The tool is a 41-page document that helps a user understand the complexity of solar supply chain and ways to ensure they are not sourcing something that compromises human rights.
The Protocol is a set of recommended policies and procedures designed to
(i) identify the source of a product’s material inputs, and
(ii) trace the movement of these inputs throughout the supply chain.
By implementing the key principles of the Protocol, companies are better able to meet their import compliance obligations and provide customers supply chain transparency. The Protocol also incorporates an independent, third-party audit mechanism to measure a company’s implementation of traceability policies and procedures.
The Protocol offers a set of questions that customers, developers, financiers, and other stakeholders should ask suppliers about products in the solar + storage value chain.
The document states that “More broadly, the solar energy industry has a responsibility to mitigate and manage its full range of social and environmental impacts, which include respecting the human rights of workers, ensuring that the rights of communities and other stakeholders are respected, and making business operations safe and environmentally responsible.”
A while ago, John Smirnow, vice president of market strategy for SEIA, was quoted saying - “Forced labor will not be tolerated in our industry.”
SEIA Solar Commitment Update
Following the pledge, SEIA also updated its Solar Commitment, which defines common labour, health and safety, environmental, and ethical standards as well as expectations for solar companies. The update now includes guidance on workplace safety and ‘ethical labour practices.
My Solar Quotes was founded with a strict emphasis on sustainability and positive change. As such, we believe that anything that compromises human rights cannot, and should not be called sustainable. Thankfully, we are glad to see the industry standing up to this issue and taking measures to counter it.
At this stage, the best way to know if solar panels are ethical and free from slave labour is to ask their solar installer or to check on the SEIA pledge list. Governments around the world are working hard to ensure imported solar panels have not involved any slave labour in the supply chain of their production. My Solar Quotes will continue to work towards ensuring the recommendations we make do not include any involvement of slave labour or abuse of human rights.