IT Sustainability Think Tank: Aligning procurement with the principles of the circular economy

With sustainability moving up the boardroom agenda, CIOs and IT managers should look to revamp their IT procurement strategies to align with the principles of the circular economy, but why and what does this mean when it comes to managing the lifecycle of their entire IT estate?

The increase in the digital carbon footprint goes hand in hand with digital transformation. This footprint is not considered or visualised from practically any digital transformation strategy. This vacuum, added to the growing impact of digital pollution, is not sustainable. This digital glut’s carbon footprint has already exceeded that of the global aviation and maritime industry.

When talking about digital transformation, its environmental cost is not mentioned, or the relationship between the increase in computational power and global warming or the decline of biodiversity.

Applying the principles of the circular economy, we need to practise “reduce, reuse and recycle”. Eliminate waste by reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, refurbishing IT assets and digital devices. Continuing to mine the Earth for precious metals and minerals and make new devices is unsustainable. We simply can no longer continue to extract Earth’s resources to manufacture goods and use them, only to dispose of them into landfill.

Volatility in supply chains exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, the increased computational power required by new technology concepts, such as the metaverse and 5G, has led to a huge demand for raw materials needed for the manufacturing of devices and servers, etc.

The majority of the carbon emissions of a device’s lifecycle take place during the manufacturing process. Extending the useful life of IT assets is the single greatest thing any organisation can do – keeping them longer in the circle and in the loop – to mitigate the environmental impact of digital.

When purchasing, organisations need to think again, and overcome their obsession with buying new. Refurbished and remanufactured devices can save lots of money and avoid a lot of carbon emissions. Studies have also shown that some refurbished and remanufactured devices can be more reliable than new devices because they are more rigorously tested. Keeping devices longer makes good business sense, too, as most new IT assets are simply not delivering when it comes to added performance.

The first step is to understand and acknowledge the environmental impact of our digitisation – that it is far from sustainable. Let us remember that the manufacture of computer equipment represents about half of the environmental impact of these products.

Practise “responsible consumption”. Eliminate waste by reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, refurbishing IT assets and digital devices.

  • Extend life of devices and existing infrastructure as long as possible.
  • Look to repair rather than dispose.
  • Invest in “repairing” systems and infrastructure.
  • Procure refurbished or remanufactured.
  • Procure devices that are repairable.
  • Use devices that are recyclable at end of life.
  • Design software to use less hardware.

Organisations should also look to revamp their procurement processes to align with the principles of the circular economy because the linear economic model of IT consumption and usage is not sustainable. The existing approach to IT procurement must change to reduce the impact that our current throw-away culture is having on the environment.

Current IT procurement processes have to be shaped by circular economy principles, promoting durability of infrastructure and devices, with emphasis on reusing, remanufacturing and recycling to keep IT resources, components and materials circulating in the economy.

For this reason, as an industry, it is imperative that we adopt and embrace “right to repair” as a principle, explore ways in which we can end the planned obsolescence of technological devices and extend their lifecycle.

Organisations should also look to establish an annual CO2 impact figure for digital equipment and its use. New sets of metrics should be developed to track, monitor and measure the circularity of IT. These could include, for example, the percentage of remanufactured/refurbished IT assets used, figures denoting the energy-efficiency of PCs, laptops and servers, how many years the lifecycle of the device has been extended, and the percentage of renewable energy consumption.

The principles of the circular economy should be embraced proactively. Ambitious circular economy measures may push organisations to drive the new net-zero economy and digital can play an integral part in this transition with sustainability as an important check and balance.

Organisations should focus on reducing and eliminating data waste. Inefficient data infrastructure and data habits have led to increased data waste. A complete data strategy is required to address this. An efficient data strategy will reduce the need for more equipment and data storage.

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