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Want to be green? Maybe look at production cycles

This is the age of sustainability and environmental responsibility – but being green might be harder than some vendors think

While I was working on an article for MicroScope recently looking at the major trends for 2022, I was struck by how often respondents brought up the issue of sustainability.

For example, Mark Benson, CTO at Logicalis UK & I, pointed out that “all business decisions will be tracked by ESG regulators to uphold the highest sustainability compliance and this includes businesses operating within the channel”. 

Benson went on to make a very important point and one that I intend to concentrate on here. “Regarding sustainability, the tech industrys biggest challenge is reusing’ – everyone wants the latest, fastest gadget,” he said. “All business leaders will have to discuss the reuse of legacy architectures that are still fit for purpose. Thankfully, channel partners are perfectly positioned to push sustainability, as we have the experts, tech knowledge and tools needed to facilitate digital sustainability.”

This goes to the heart of the matter, but I am not sure it will be quite as simple as Benson would like it to be. Partners are stuck in the middle between two groups that may like to talk about sustainability, but often seem to try to limit their responsibility for it.

Take vendors. They make products and they sell them. It is in their interest to encourage people to buy their products and to continue buying them at regular intervals. If people didn’t buy them regularly, they wouldn’t need to make so many.

In this age of sustainability and environmental responsibility, the vendors place a heavy emphasis on the carbon emissions of their products after manufacture. Although reducing carbon emissions from laptops and desktops when they are in use is a worthy objective, it fails to address the largest part of a product’s carbon footprint – the manufacturing process.

This also helps to reassure people who buy those products that their new laptop or desktop has a lower carbon footprint than the machine it is replacing. Except it doesn’t. That argument holds up only if you ignore the emissions caused by the manufacturing process.

If you look at the breakdown for CO2 emissions from computer equipment such as desktop PCs, laptops and monitors, the manufacturing process typically accounts for 60-70% of emissions. Use of the product over its lifetime is responsible for around 20%.

If you include CO2 emissions from manufacturing, then, quite clearly, you will emit less carbon overall the longer you use your existing machine, even if it does have a higher carbon cost in use.

This shouldn’t be that difficult to grasp. After all, the entire argument for the refurbishment and reuse of equipment rests entirely on the premise that people buying those laptops or desktops are extending their lifetimes and reducing their carbon footprint compared with buying new machines.

From a completely impartial point of view, it would make more environmental sense for vendors to concentrate more of their efforts on reducing emissions in the manufacturing process. The simplest way to do this would be to make fewer machines by upgrading them less frequently and improving the environmental impact of the manufacturing process with each cycle.

For example, why not introduce new models every two or three years instead of every year? That way, they could incorporate a much wider range of significant upgrades in their new models, rather than a handful of piecemeal advances.

Reducing the manufacture of products would lead to a corresponding reduction in the consumption of them. The upgrade cycle for laptops and desktops would adjust accordingly.

At present, the people and organisations buying laptops and desktops are assuaged by reductions in the carbon emissions of the new machines they purchase and the reuse and recycle or lifecycle management policies they have in place. But, as noted above, that doesn’t address the main cause of carbon emissions that they are trying to mitigate – themselves.

Buying and replacing machines to timetables set by the vendors makes them part of the cycle that is causing carbon emissions and generating mountains of e-waste, which is growing at a phenomenal rate. They are not doing enough to correct that cycle.

Channel partners are in a tough spot. They sell and support products made by the vendors to the customers they support and work with. It’s not easy for partners who connect vendors to customers to get both to make the changes to achieve real sustainability by overhauling the production and consumption model they have sustained for so long.

But the inescapable fact is that when it comes to the environment, less production and less consumption is much more sustainable than anything else.

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