How enterprises can ensure sustainability in their IT supply chains [Q&A]

Scrap computers bin

We recently reported on a study showing that IT leaders are willing to pay more for systems and providers that have a commitment to sustainability. And with the COP26 climate conference in full swing there's increased focus on reducing our impact on the planet.

But how can enterprises properly vet their supply chain to ensure the businesses they’re dealing with are adhering to the appropriate standards? We spoke with Martin Thompson, founder of the ITAM Forum -- a body that promotes the IT asset management industry -- to find out.

BN: How big a difference can making the right sustainability choices make?

MT: According to the UN's E-waste monitor, globally, we generate some 53 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste) every year, an amount that is projected to more than double by 2050. That makes e-waste the fastest growing waste stream in the world. IT -- not just the energy consumption but the hardware itself -- is now a major part of our environmental footprint and a toxic one at that. Heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium and more) can leach out of these devices and into the ecosystem causing a wide range of issues. There is clearly a huge amount to gain from reducing e-waste and making more sustainable IT choices.

BN: Can businesses make better choices by first auditing their existing assets?

MT: Absolutely. This is the best place to start. By auditing their existing assets, IT Asset Management (ITAM) can help companies to prolong the useful life of their IT assets, which in turn reduces their environmental impact.

BN: What questions should you be asking when looking for sustainable suppliers?

MT: This is a good question, because much of the debate around sustainable in IT tends to focus too much on recycling and end-of-life. The procurement stage is the best time to address sustainability. Standard practice in Lifecyle Assessment is to include water usage, materials usage, toxicity and carbon footprint when calculating total environmental impact of an IT asset; however, with an increasing focus on worldwide carbon emissions, CO2 equivalence reporting has become much more mainstream. When calculating this in IT, it is important to consider all scopes of emissions: direct, indirect as a result of energy usage, and emissions as a result of downstream and upstream operations.

This exercise should not be limited to onsite hardware either. With the growing prevalence of cloud software in a business' IT stack, it is all too easy for a company to underestimate their overall environmental impact. But with the major cloud providers now reporting on the CO2 impact of their operations, it should be easy enough for companies to include these figures in their own sustainability reports.

Ultimately though, sustainable IT all circles back to hardware -- whether you're buying cloud, SaaS, etc. you are still ultimately using hardware. The most important point is that IT is an extractive industry -- in order to build equipment to satisfy the growth in demand for all things digital, from mobile phones and IoT sensors to laptops and data centers, a vast array of precious metals are required, such as silver, gold, copper and platinum. Despite these precious metals being finite, less than 20 percent are being recycled. A large proportion of the world's carbon footprint and biodiversity loss are related to the mining of materials for IT.

Another question that companies should be asking themselves is this; do I really need this new hardware? If you can sweat an existing asset for a few more years, then you may not even need to speak to your supplier this year.

BN: Businesses are reported as being willing to pay more to go green, but can you make sustainable choices and reduce costs?

MT: Yes, without a doubt. A large part of the problem is the misperception that you need to upgrade and renew your IT equipment every five-to-seven years to stay productive. This concept of a limited lifecycle for hardware is principally created by the IT industry to drive sales, justified by the continual innovation in software which requires more powerful hardware to run adequately. While this may have been true 10+ years ago, we have reached a point today where most IT is so powerful that we are facing a law of diminishing returns. A PC built 10 years ago can still hold its own today. If you think of the software that most businesses use -- word processors, spreadsheets, messaging apps etc. These applications rarely need high end hardware to run well. Businesses are beginning to realize that they can hold onto their hardware for much longer, which is more sustainable and saves costs.

BN: Is it possible to be 'green' in disposing of older, end-of-life, assets too?

MT: Yes, the most sustainable approach that businesses can take with end-of-life assets is to remarket or donate them. Devices which are no longer usable but still have a market value can be sold on, while those that don’t have a market value can still be donated to those who can use them. Failing that, companies have an obligation to ensure no IT hardware ends up in landfill. There are many charities and local authorities that will take and recycle hardware for free, so there really is no excuse for companies to be generating e-waste of any kind.

Looking at the bigger picture, companies can make a bigger impact by reducing or delaying the amount of hardware that is considered ‘end-of-life’. This starts with redeploying IT assets internally. If a device is no longer useful to one person doesn't mean it can’t be used elsewhere in the business. Redeploying hardware is ITAM's bread and butter, helping to reduce the amount of new IT that is purchased and produced. Because ITAM actively tracks all IT assets within the organization, it can report on the sustainability gains of this practice quite easily.

BN: What role do you see the ITAM Forum playing in promoting sustainable IT?

MT: As a membership organization, our role is to improve the understanding of ITAM and to promote the benefits of the ITAM industry to those who may not have contact with it. We are finding that ITAM teams are enjoying more seniority and board level exposure than ever before because of the increasing strategic value that ITAM offers. Building on its bread-and-butter role of reducing IT costs and ensuring compliance with software license agreements, ITAM is now supporting other strategic goals like cybersecurity and sustainability.

The C-suite is beginning to recognize sustainability as a point of competitive differentiation. It is no longer just a box-ticking exercise, but something businesses neglect at their peril. As BrewDog CEO and co-founder James Watt recently said, "Sustainability will be everything… In five years' time the leading brand in any category will be the most sustainable."

While ITAM is not the be all and end all, it has a big role to play in helping companies on their journeys to sustainability. Helping the industry to carry out this role will be our contribution.

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