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Sustainability series part 2: placing sustainability at the heart of it procurement


Cycle to work
John Gladstone

John Gladstone

Lifecycle Solutions Lead

In the first article of our sustainability series, “Making an Impact: Can IT Really Help Solve the Climate Crisis?”, we set out IT’s true (and growing) impact on the environment and the future role the sector can play in helping the world meet its science-backed climate targets. 

Having set out the context and the scale of the challenge ahead, we now dive deeper into how organisations can make proactive changes. This includes creating a cost-effective and sustainable IT estate by making smarter and more eco-conscious procurement decisions.

IT and sustainability are deeply connected

The global IT sector electricity demand outweighs many nation states today, ranking behind only two countries in the world – China and the US.

However, while great progress is being made by organisations to make their operations “greener”, IT teams and IT estates are often overlooked in the planning and driving forward of sustainability initiatives.

This doesn’t make sense when technology now underpins almost every business task and process. It also has untapped value when it comes to streamlining operations, lowering costs and reducing an organisation’s carbon footprint.

While the public sector has the UK Government’s ICT Greening Vision for guidance, there is a lower level of awareness in the private sector.

So, how can IT teams become more involved in working towards their organisations’ sustainability goals? And how can smarter IT decision-making help?

Understanding the IT lifestyle

Everything has a lifecycle; the period between when something is created or manufactured, operates at its best and then “dies”.

With technology developing at an accelerating rate, the window in which hardware or software is at its prime is shortening. And this can be problematic in many ways for organisations, including from a sustainability perspective.

When it comes to IT lifecycle management there’s a fine balance to be struck. On the one hand, organisations can lose money and miss out on ROI if they replace equipment too soon. But wait too long and old tech can result in delays, security risks, failures and frustration. Even more, it can have an impact on employee satisfaction or their ability to attract new people.

There are four stages of an IT lifestyle: Procurement, Deployment, Management and Disposition. Typically, sustainability has been a concern at the final stage of the cycle when it’s no longer needed. But to make a real difference, sustainability needs to be embedded into decision-making across each of the four stages - starting with procurement.

Sustainability 2

Make the first move

A cost-effective and energy-efficient ICT estate, which is fully exploited, can enable new and sustainable ways of working, improving top and bottom lines in the process.

But to make improvements and limit the environmental impact of your IT estate, you need to know what you currently have in place, your operational emissions and where sustainability gains could be made through future procurement decisions.

COVID-19 has made it much more complicated for organisations to understand their IT position. The urgencies and supply chain shortages meant IT teams had to make decisions quickly and prioritise speed and cost over sustainability. It also left many employees with replication of hardware at home.

However, as employees return to the office or begin a hybrid working pattern, now is the perfect time to carry out a technology audit to understand asset reduction opportunities and set new strategies. Without this measurability, it can be difficult to understand and track your progress towards your sustainability goals.

Changing to sustainable IT procurement

To embed environmental responsibility throughout the product life cycle, issues like climate impact, waste diversion and supply chain ethics must become priority factors with each purchase. And sustainable procurement will take centre stage.

Sustainable procurement means adopting social, economic and environmental factors alongside the typical price and quality considerations you would do normally when purchasing new IT products.

Do your research. Dig a little deeper to understand the product’s manufacturing process – whether it’s made from restricted materials; that power information has been measured; its design is energy efficient, and it can be reused or recycled (including its packaging). There are several sustainability certifications for IT products to look out for – TCO Certified, Energy Star® certification, ECMA-370: The Eco Declaration standard; EPEAT rating or LEED certification.

Consider its end-of-use options too, including whether repair or refurbishment services are offered, replacement or monetary rebate through upcycling. If not, there needs to be a guarantee of a responsible recycling programme to avoid the product ending up in landfill.

There’s also a growing industry for “As-a-Service" solutions, helping businesses only pay for the IT they use without over-provisioning and offers an alternative to the traditional “buy, own, retire” model. However, always check any provider commits to reusing or refurbishing returned equipment.

 Finally, interrogate the supply chain. As the buyer, you have the responsibility to understand who and what is involved in getting your products to you. Any reputable vendor or manufacturer will be able to provide evidence for their own social and environmental responsibility.

Closing the loop with a circular economy

For years, the IT industry and its customers have followed a linear model. This is best characterised by buying a product, using it for a limited amount of time, and then disposing of it.

 But for us to reach science-based climate targets and limit the harmful effects of waste on the natural environment and people, we need to make the switch to a circular economy model. The central idea is to ensure the resources that enter the economy remain a part of it for as long as possible.

At the 2019 CIO summit, Mattie Yeta, government sustainable ICT lead at DEFRA defined the circular economy as: “An economic model that aims to eliminate waste by reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, refurbishing assets and devices, thus keeping them longer in the circle and the loop.”

As an undertaking, it requires a level of eco-consciousness across the whole organisation to succeed. And only when every organisation that forms our infrastructure and economy embraces this new way of doing business will the true benefits be felt by all.

So, are you ready?