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Is there a need for sustainability-focused channel programmes?

With growing attention around the ambition to get to net-zero carbon emissions, some vendors are introducing incentives and targets into channel programmes

As words go, sustainability is not one of the most graceful or mellifluous there is – not that it matters in an industry which makes a habit of deploying clunky, cumbersome, unwieldy, mangled words and phrases to try to describe its own innovations and trends.

Still, sustainability is an increasingly popular and common word across all industries, including IT, creating something of a zero-emission sustainability bandwagon.

A lot of zeal for sustainability is driven by customers. A recent review of print vendor sustainability by Quocirca found that more than 80% of customers said it was important that vendors offered sustainable products and services, and that they demonstrated a reduction in their environmental impact.

Print vendors are a good place to start, but they are not the be-all and end-all. People might concentrate on print and copier devices because they can see and feel the end product, and there’s an immediate physical product that they can assign an environmental cost to in terms of paper and print.

But the focus on sustainability programmes is not taking place in isolation among print vendors. It’s also being highlighted by those operating in other IT product and services areas, especially due to customer demand.

“We are seeing a growing number of customers align themselves with organisations that prioritise sustainability,” says Neil MacDonald, UK and Ireland channel director for HP Inc.

“Not just because its the right thing to do, but because its good for business as well. Strong environmental performance lends itself to competitive advantage, and the measure of success for every company today is tied to empowering progress for the planet and its people – if you are not acting as a pioneer now, you will be passed by very quickly.”

MacDonald claims that HPs commitment to its sustainable impact has become a difference maker for the business, driving more than $3.5bn in new sales. “It’s becoming a competitive advantage in our goal to be the most sustainable and just technology company by 2030,” he adds.  

And there are plenty of vendors happy to discuss their sustainability efforts. Richard Wells, Epson UK head of office print sales, argues that in the face of organisations considering their ecological and corporate social responsibility (CSR) approaches, “channel partners selling Epson products are future-proofed, as we already offer products with sustainability benefits at their core and they see this as a great advantage”.

Similarly, Greig Millar, general manager for sales, services and solutions at Brother UK, says the vendor has “worked closely” with partners over the past few years to demonstrate the sustainability of its technology, services and business to customers.

“This is becoming more crucial as green credentials are given increased weighting, by up to 40% in some cases, especially in tender processes that we work with our partners on,” he notes, adding that channel players are becoming more commercially incentivised to engage with vendors that have a clear green agenda, particularly for winning over large corporate and public sector customers.

Tackling refillable cartridges

This all sounds very encouraging, but as Janis Kemers, vice-president of print and supplies for Europe at Tech Data, says: “Sustainability is the big elephant in the room in the print industry.” The industry has been seen as polluting for decades in terms of generating huge amounts of CO2 just through shipping cartridges, not to mention associated plastic and electronic waste.

Kemers believes there’s a feeling that vendors are not driving proactive sustainability programmes, and instead seem to be more reactive. Too often, the conversation is about offsetting, instead of reducing. The refillable movement stands out as a way to try to improve sustainability.

“Epson is leading the crowd in Europe,” says Kemers, “and has been committed to the strategy over the past four to five years.” Primarily, sustainability has been aimed at the consumer and small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) level – Canon is starting to do something similar, while HP is looking at it but has yet to push it.

Remanufactured cartridges are increasingly being looked at because of a push in the European Union to do so, but nothing has been agreed between member states yet. Nevertheless, corporates and governments are making more demands for remanufactured cartridges in their tenders, which is translating into market demand.

“Corporate resellers are coming to us asking for remanufactured cartridges,” says Kemers, adding that it’s not a simple process because there’s no clear definition and understanding of remanufactured versus newly built. It can also be as expensive to provide a remanufactured cartridge as a new one. In any case, Kemers believes there’s currently no role for the channel in the remanufactured business.

The great realisation

According to Quocirca, there is a need for sustainability-focused channel programmes to drive all-important channel engagement. While most vendors are happy to encourage partners “to incorporate sustainability into customer messaging”, only one has a dedicated channel sustainability programme.

Michael O’Hara is managing director at DataSolutions, which has placed a strong emphasis on sustainability and helped to launch Techies Go Green – a movement of IT and tech-oriented companies committed to decarbonising their businesses.

“[Channel partners] are waking up to the fact that sustainability is no longer a buzzword – it is an environmental, economic and social driver of change affecting all our lives in every way possible,” says O’Hara. He dubs this the “great realisation”.

But he warns that there is no quick fix. “This isnt a problem that is going to disappear with one or two actions by any business. It will require collective action by vendors, reseller partners and customers, and it will take time – many years, in fact,” he says, adding that Techies Go Green signatories are leading from the front when it comes to sustainability, but they “are more the exception than the rule”.

As for what channel partners should do to advance their sustainability credentials, O’Hara says: “Start by measuring your business’s carbon footprint – you cant reduce what you havent measured. This will also help to develop a roadmap and action plan to become more sustainable over time.”

Apathy vs demand

Is the dearth of channel sustainability programmes down to channel apathy or something else?  

“I think it reflects a lack of interest from channel partners caused by a lack of financial commitment from customers,” says OCF sustainability officer Mischa van Kesteren.

“[Customers might say they want sustainable solutions], but they dont buy them. I have, on more than one occasion, designed more energy-efficient solutions than competitors and lost out to more wasteful solutions that offered greater raw performance but lower performance per watt. Intel designed a whole Lrange of low wattage CPUs [central processing units] which nobody bought, so it dropped them. 

There’s a reason why vendors and customers are the ones making the most noise about sustainability. “We cant be first movers on sustainability until customers start making it a competitive advantage,” says van Kesteren.

“I would say it is starting to get that way from a softperspective where talking about it and making suggestions is gaining traction. However, we cant integrate it into our solutions to a great extent until customers start rewarding that decision with their business, which they arent, at least in our market. I do think this will change in the next year or two, however.”

“We can’t be first movers on sustainability until customers start making it a competitive advantage”
Mischa van Kesteren, OCF

Is there anything partners should do to try to give sustainability programmes more of a channel focus?

“We could do more in terms of requesting what would be helpful for us in that area,” says van Kesteren. “For me, that would be tools that generate carbon footprint information easily, and also being able to select a range of delivery options that might be more sustainable such as rail freight, even if it means longer lead times. Also trying to condense deliveries as much as possible to reduce miles covered by delivery vehicles.”

The proposal to make deliveries more environmentally efficient is something mooted by Tech Data’s Kemers regarding print cartridges. With managed print services it is possible to predict which cartridges will run out in a week and which will need to be replaced in three months’ time. He suggests putting all the replacements into a single delivery to make for a smaller carbon footprint.

Partners need to avoid being caught in a pincer movement between customers keen to burnish their sustainability credentials, but not so enthusiastic about paying for the privilege and for vendors anxious to use environmental concerns as another way to sell their equipment and services.

Jostein Birkeland, principal technologist of sustainable transformation at HPE, cites IDC research which predicts 75% of enterprises will expect sustainability to be included in request for information (RFI) proposals by next year as a reason for partners to become more engaged.

“There are tangible business advantages for the channel in implementing sustainability programmes and supporting customers in their sustainability efforts,” he says. “Faced with resource limitations, supply chain constraints and high energy prices, organisations that are aligning their tech strategies with sustainability initiatives are growing stronger, more resilient and more able to accelerate a data-first digital strategy.”

He admits that while sustainability has become a key consideration for many channel players, “it is not a standard yet”, adding that the seemingly slow adoption in the channel space has different reasons, such as the fact that pressure from purchasers is directed to manufacturers, not the channel.

Also, channel partners are smaller companies than IT corporations, with fewer resources and fewer years of experience in sustainability practice, says Birkeland, and this is a cue for vendors that partners are looking to them as a key source for guidance on sustainability.

A disconnect on engagement

Louella Fernandes, research director at Quocirca, says there is a “disconnect” between vendors and the channel when it comes to sustainability.

“Given that [sustainability] is becoming a higher priority, the channel will need to be better engaged,” she says, citing the example of HP Inc’s reports on the growing proportion of B2B sales it attributes to sustainability. 

The HP Amplify channel programme is a bid to extend that advantage to partners, although Fernandes is not in a position to say whether it has driven an increase in business. “I would agree that there is probably a lack of interest from channel partners at this stage, and that is something vendors will need to address,” she adds.

Commenting on Amplify, HP’s MacDonald says: “Over 80% of our channel revenue comes from UK partners that have signed a pledge with HP that taps into HPs knowledge, training and resources to assess and improve their sustainability performance while optimising sustainability-driven sales.” Describing it as “a strong and encouraging start”, he adds that the vendor is focused on “ensuring sustainability is at the forefront of the channel agenda”. 

“As print volumes settle into the rhythms of hybrid working, sustainability will return to being a priority”
Greig Millar, Brother UK

Brother’s Millar observes that channel partners have had a lot to deal with over the past couple of years, “but as print volumes settle into the rhythms of hybrid working, sustainability will return to being a priority”. He still believes it is the responsibility of vendors to ensure they can “support resellers with the sustainable solutions that will meet customers’ demands, whether that’s through a single programme or a range of comprehensive initiatives”.

Christina Walker, global director of channel at Blancco, believes that what motivates channel partners is how the solutions they use or offer can help to achieve their sustainability goals internally and for their customers.

“There hasnt been any demonstrable proof yet that sustainability programmes are an advantage for partners. However, it would certainly be an interesting factor to bring into an existing programme,” she says.

Walker disputes that partners have been apathetic about sustainability. I havent seen our partners being passive on the subject,” she adds. “In fact, they have been very proactive about sustainability and are currently doing reviews of their vendors to identify if they meet their customersand internal requirements.”

It’s heartening that all parts of the IT supply chain are starting to acknowledge and appreciate that sustainability is not just a word or a trend. Sustainability is a circle as big as the planet, and we all need to be inside it.

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