Can you really go net zero without sustainable IT?  

Achieving net zero is now a top priority for a growing number of UK businesses, but the road to carbon neutrality is littered with obstacles, difficult decisions and the odd wrong turn. It’s not easy knowing what to do, and I have a lot of sympathy for business leaders who are trying to do the right thing while juggling countless competing demands for their time, intellect, and investment.    

Depending on the sector, achieving net zero might be relatively easy, or seemingly impossible. Some businesses will require only small operational or behavioral changes, while others will need to go through significant upheaval, investment, and strategic realignment before they even get close.    

Whichever end of that scale a business might be on, one thing is certain, if it uses IT in any way shape or form, it’s going to be extremely difficult to achieve net zero without addressing the footprint of its IT infrastructure. The good news is that it’s usually one of the easiest areas to address.    

Time to roll up your sleeves  

We live in the age of the net zero commitment. Almost two-thirds of the UK’s largest companies have pledged to reach net zero by 2050, and 87 of the 100 largest listed companies have signed up to the BRC Roadmap to reach net zero by 2040.     

Yet despite this pledge, only 29 percent of UK businesses have a strategy in place to reach their net zero goal. Two in five (42 percent) business leaders say they feel overwhelmed by the steps they need to take to reach that goal. Fewer still have plans to reduce their scope three emissions.    

While it’s naturally great that business leaders are facing up to the environmental challenges facing our society, there are signs that many, if not most, will fail to cross the net-zero finish line in time. There’s a sense that too many people in leadership positions don’t know what to do, and don’t know where to start.    

Business leaders in this position, searching the horizon for a quick win that makes commercial as well as environmental sense should start by looking carefully at their IT estate.      

Can businesses achieve net zero without sustainable IT?  

Strictly speaking, yes, it is possible to achieve net zero while still maintaining an environmentally expensive IT infrastructure, but only if a company invests in a carbon offsetting program to balance out its emissions. It’s technically possible, but in a world of readily available renewable energy, and circular programs to cut the carbon cost of acquiring hardware, it’s hard to imagine a world in which it would make sense to do so.    

Let’s take the humble laptop as an example. Three in five UK workers use a laptop or desktop device at work; each one of those new laptops costs 331 kg of CO₂, uses 190,000 liters of water, and requires 1,200 kg of earth and rock to be mined all before it’s taken out of the box. Now considering that by 2028, the number of laptops sold in the UK alone is expected to hit 4.2 million units; that’s some 1.4 million metric tons of CO₂ pumped into the atmosphere each year from the purchase of new devices.    

If someone were to offset that number using a popular approach, such as planting trees, we would need to plant around 56 million trees every year, just to cancel out the carbon cost of all those new laptops. To put that in perspective, there’s estimated to be around 3 billion trees currently in the UK today. Framed this way, it’s easy to see why carbon offsetting is severely limited in its capacity to cancel out the ongoing cost of replacing, let alone powering, the UK’s IT infrastructure.     

Could remanufacturing be a silver bullet?  

Not many people realise that by far the most carbon-intensive part of a laptop’s life is when it’s being made. More than 75 percent of a laptop’s carbon footprint is attributed to the manufacturing process, which makes how we source them, and how long we keep them, immensely important.    

Sustainable IT, and in particular Circular Computing, considers the entire life cycle of IT products, ensuring responsible sourcing of materials, and ethical manufacturing practices. As the global leader in laptop remanufacturing, Circular Computing sets the gold standard for providing devices that look like new, work like new, and cost less, both financially and environmentally. Last year, we asked Cranfield University to conduct a full lifecycle analysis of our remanufactured laptops and found that they produce over 15 times less CO2 during production compared to an average new laptop.    

That means the decision to buy a remanufactured laptop cuts the carbon cost of acquiring each device down from 331kg to just 15kg. That makes the math very different; 63,000 metric tons of CO₂ every year. If we could as a country rethink the way we buy workplace laptops, we would collectively have taken a significant step towards achieving our country's net zero pledge.    

The bottom line  

In the world of sustainability, remanufacturing is a rare win-win-win solution. The first win is the climate cost; by removing the need to buy new, it carries a significantly reduced carbon footprint, 15 times less. The second is the financial cost; it costs less than buying new, up to 40 percent less in some cases. The third is the quality-of-life cost; by converting products to like or better than new appearance and performance, they are indistinguishable from an average new laptop.    

Unless you’re an architect or working in a film studio, most of the UK’s laptop-using workforce do not need a brand-new, full-spec laptop. Yes, you will always get some employees asking for the latest tech, but when you look at what they’re using it for, most would not see any discernible differences on a 2-year-old model forensically engineered to look and perform better than new.    

ESG is increasingly high up the corporate agenda, with 45 percent of the UK’s largest companies now having an ESG measure in executive pay. IT bosses who can contribute to that success stand to earn the gratitude of those responsible for addressing their company’s carbon footprint.     

Starting the journey to net zero is the hardest step of all, and it’s great to see so many businesses have done just that by making a cast iron carbon pledge. What’s needed now, is smart ideas, and swift action, and sustainable IT has all the answers today to help business leaders show progress almost overnight.

Image Credit: Paradee Paradee/Dreamstime.com

Steve Haskew, is Head of Sustainability and Social Leadership at Circular Computing.

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