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Sustainable tech: Good for the planet, good for business

The urgency of climate change means organizations must focus sustainability efforts on one of the biggest sources of their carbon footprint: technology. In this Technology Untangled podcast, learn why IT efficiency needs to be a priority—now more than ever.

As climate change accelerates, businesses are waking up to the fact that sustainability is no longer something that's nice to think about but a critical issue requiring fundamental change―particularly when it comes to company data centers and electronic waste.

According to Mateo Dugand, an IT efficiency and sustainability technologist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the IT industry produces close to 50 million tons of e-waste a year, a figure that's expected to increase.

"Technology forms a large part of any organization's carbon footprint," adds Steve Gair, sales director for financial services at HPE. But sustainability isn't just about the environment, he says. It's also key to the "long-term viability" of organizations, affecting everything from financial stability and revenue growth to supply chains and business models.

In this episode of Technology Untangled, Dugand and Gair join Ray McGann, financial services sales leader at HPE, and Mattie Yeta, head of sustainable IT for Defra in the U.K., to unpack sustainability imperatives and strategies. The discussion focuses on the need to shift from a linear economy to a circular one, the various dimensions of sustainability and their impact, and what it will take to make planet-friendly tech a reality.

Excerpts from the podcast, hosted by Michael Bird, follow:

Mateo Dugand: There are thousands of scientists out there all saying the same thing: that we are in the climate crisis, that we have an increasing amount of species that are disappearing from the planet, that pollution is killing more and more people every year on a worldwide basis, and that we are basically going towards a past that is just not sustainable for both business and for the society we live in.

Michael Bird: These devastating consequences prove we all need to take a serious look at sustainability in our organizations. And we can start by breaking that broad term down into three parts.

Three dimensions of sustainability

Dugand: One of the definitions of sustainability is that you have three dimensions: You have the social dimension, you have the environmental dimension, and you have the economic dimension.

Bird: The first social dimension plays out in corporate sustainability strategies, which redefine who organizations answer to.

Dugand: The concept itself is that the company doesn't live for profit only; it also lives to be a corporate citizen. Having a corporate sustainability strategy means that you acknowledge there are different stakeholders other than your investors. Investors are super-important, of course―they're part of those stakeholders―but you have other stakeholders: You have customers, you have suppliers, you have partners, and you have the society and the planet. And you basically turn your strategy to make sure that you take into account and that you are going to benefit all those stakeholders. It used to be really something that was kind of a "nice to have" literally became a "must have" for any organization to embed some dimensions of corporate sustainability in their organizations.

Steve Gair: So the first thing to point out is when organizations are thinking about sustainability, they're not only thinking about the planet and the environment.

Bird: That's Steve Gair, sales director for financial services at HPE. Steve spends quite a lot of time thinking about the economic dimension of sustainability.

Gair: They may be thinking about the long-term viability of their organization, financial stability, thinking about growing revenue, attracting inward investment, and also thinking about a sustainable supply chain and is their business model sustainable.

Sustainability is really important because companies are using it to attract talent. So they're making sure that their objectives and their goals are right there in the public domain. And that means that they can attract that young, early-career [job candidate] and new entrance into the business world.

Driving sustainability can also mean driving efficiencies in an organization, including reducing costs. This can include how companies finance, consume, use technology―really trying to drive efficiencies across their organization.

Bird: Attracting talent and investment while cutting costs sounds good. We've already hit one of sustainability's biggest stumbling blocks: tech. We've all got it, we all need it, and that's part of the problem.

 

Reducing IT's footprint

Dugand: I think what is important to acknowledge is that there is always more to do. There is a scientific fact which says that the IT industry is today responsible for close to 4 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions on earth. That's close to 1.5 percent more than the aviation industry, to give a little bit of context.

We as an industry are generating close to 50 million tons of electronic waste, and that's increasing. That's the fastest waste category increase that we see today worldwide.

Gair: When we talk about sustainable organizations, we're all aware that technology forms a large part in any organization's carbon footprint.

That's one element of the goals that they're looking to drive down with regards to emissions in carbon footprint and greenhouse gas.

Dugand: We have definitely that share of responsibility, that we have to discuss, that we have to raise awareness about, and that we have to implement strategies for. I think that the IT industry has stepped up to that challenge, that a lot of the players have put in place very ambitious strategies, from a waste generation perspective but also from a climate perspective, and that are leading the way towards being more sustainable and more responsible in the way they do business.

Bird: We'll dive into these ambitious strategies later on. But before we do that, let's look at the problematic model that has a catastrophic impact on that third environmental dimension.

Impact of the linear economy

Dugand: Well, you have what we call the linear economy, which is how the current economy and the past economy has been working for decades.

It's all about extracting things from the earth, manufacturing something out of it, using it, and basically burying it back into the earth and generating all that waste. The result of that is not only are [resources on earth limited] and that will lead us to an unsustainable model where we will not be able to extract anything anymore at some point, we'll probably end up having water-stressed geographies. That will also happen for minerals; that will probably also happen for oil at some point―not now, but at some point. We'll run out of those resources, so that linear economy is literally not working from a business perspective in the long term.

Bird: For most people, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Prominent thinkers have been trying to move away from the linear model since the '70s in lieu of a closed-loop approach, but the economic and business opportunity of such an approach wasn't considered in any detail until an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report in 2013. It's topic: the circular economy.

Gair: It's a subsection, I would say, of sustainability, and it really has three main principles. The first one is design out, so that's designing products with the environment in mind, thinking about ethical sourcing, product recyclability, and power usage efficiencies.

 

The second one is keeping their assets in the circle longer. So it's just doing that: It's making sure that the assets can be repurposed and reutilized to ensure that a second user or a third user can take benefit of that technology. And the third one is regenerate, and this is actually regenerating the natural system.

Bird: These circular economy principles are vital in the IT industry, which has the dual issue of depleting natural resources and generating waste.

Gair: The critical point is the reutilizing and repurposing after usage rather than disposing. We must move away from a linear society of take, make, throw. With the limited resources and raw materials on the planet, it just can't cope with that old mentality.

Bird: So how is the IT industry approaching the new circular mentality? And is it really making a difference? Let's take the three pillars one by one. So first up: design out waste.

Bringing new efficiencies to computing

Dugand: One of the key innovations that's happening in the past years is what we call memory-driven computing. You'll have the end of the Moore's Law, which basically tells you the amount of work in compute per what consumed is still increasing but at a slower rate. That means that we cannot rely anymore only on processor improvements in order to make those energy effectiveness increases in terms of performance.

We have to look beyond that element and look at inventing new architectures so that we can bring new efficiencies to the compute world.

With the early results that we have showed, we have significant energy efficiency performances that can really bring the energy consumption of such an architecture to a new level where we could essentially consume 1 percent of the energy consuming traditional architectures to do the exact same work.

When you become more energy efficient and therefore reduce the emissions associated with the energy use, you also reduce your power bill, right?

The second part is really the materials innovation part around the photonics, by using photons rather than electronics, electrical links. This technology will basically use microscopic lasers to shoot hundreds of times more data down an optical fiber.

And that will eliminate the use of copper wires, which are a natural resource that we're extracting on a daily basis for the IT industries. It will also save a huge amount of energy to power and cool those systems. So the fibers are very small; they create space efficiencies too, which are very important so that we also reduce the amount of natural resources we need to manufacture any kind of product. And also the installation will be a lot easier.

Bird: With new products like these, organizations will be able to reduce energy use, save money, and most importantly, have microscopic lasers. Very much all wins in my book.

The role of government bodies

Across the world, the IT industry is being encouraged by government bodies to innovate sustainably, and in the U.K., that's incentivization comes from Defra.

Mattie Yeta: My name is Mattie Yeta, and I am the head of sustainable IT for Defra

Bird: Defra is the government department that is responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture and fisheries, and rural communities.

Matty works closely with the U.K. IT industry to drive forward the sustainability agenda in line with the UN's Global Goals.

Yeta: If we are going to achieve a state of net zero by 2050, we have to transition the economy to cleaner energy and affordable energy. And I think there is this assumption that sustainability is expensive and therefore moving to greener and renewable energy is more expensive.

And that's not the case. The more that we accelerate innovation, the more that we accelerate and work together as an industry in IT and produce these technologies that are driving us towards a cleaner economy, it will become less expensive. But also I recognize that governments have a role to play in that and providing incentives and so forth.

Bird: We'll hear more from Mattie later. New tech is being designed with the environment in mind and the innovation cycle seems to be getting shorter, but this "out with the old and in with the new" turnover does pose a significant problem.

What happens at end of life?

Gair: I think if you look at Individuals at this moment in time, it does feel like we just acquire technology in our own lives and we use it.

And if you ask them what they do with the technology at the end of life, I bet actually there's no answer. How often do we have mobile phones in the drawer? How often do we have radios or, you know, old technology or music players that we just don't use anymore? And what happens in the end? Who knows.

Bird: Unfortunately, plenty of individuals and organizations simply have no idea what happens to their tech when they're done with it. So here is the perfect segue into pillar two of the circular economy: keeping assets in the cycle.

Ray McGann: From a customer's perspective, many [make a] heavy investment in IT technology, you know, they've introduced new applications or new environmental changes to their business, so they no longer need those assets.

Bird: That's Ray McGann.

McGann: Ray McGann, EMEA asset manager.

Bird: Ray is a manager at HPE's Erskine re-engineering facility in Scotland.

McGann: But from a regulatory perspective, from a compliance perspective, from an environment perspective, they do need to ensure that they have a robust displacement program.

When you look at it from their point of view in two fashions, one is that they are able to stand over their environmentally sound practices for displacement. And secondly, they're able to benefit from that economic return.

Bird: At the facility in Erskine, IT assets are recovered from end-of-lease programs, short-term rentals, and assets upcycling customers in order to move through the cycle.

McGann: So, if there's a discrepancy, and in many cases, companies will have upgraded their estates during the life of the asset. So if it's in a five-year lease―for data central equipment, for example―[there is] a high degree of probability that that has been upgraded during this five-year lifecycle. And what we are able to do with that reporting is confirm back to customers: You've sent us more than we actually gave you initially. So here, we can either send it back to you or we can monetize it on your behalf and repatriate the funding back to you.

Bird: So just send your assets off to Ray and he will repurpose them and give them a new home. That sounds great for consumer goods like tablets, but organizations are understandably hesitant about assets being repurposed.

Ensuring the security of your data

Gair: Is my technology secure? Is my data secure when it actually has gone to a second user? There's a financial services organization out there that we're dealing with today and they used to destroy all the hard drives due to security reasons, literally crushed the drives. We've worked with them to find alternative ways to ensure the data is securely removed, and we're repurposing and reutilizing those drives with second users. That was a massive decision.

Bird: The center in Erskine's data sanitation process means that not even employees know who the assets belong to.

McGann: The system is geared to recognize this is now from a military application or from a government application or from a financial services application, and specifically what was contractually agreed between us and that customer.

And then the system would perform the relevant data sanitization strategies. If it has that additional data white degaussing or shredding to be done, then that will follow subsequently.

Bird: Once the assets are data-sanitized, they can be remarketed via wholesalers or direct retail by HPE, or even repatriated back to the original customers.

So what about the stuff that's just no good anymore?

McGann: That's actually quite a critical piece of this. You know, we don't allow assets to seep out into the marketplace because, if we don't find that there are viable―and there can be many reasons for that; it could be that the device is just too old or it's a faulty device and therefore unlikely to ever have a viable second life or third life―if we detect that the asset isn't suitable, we make sure it stays in the distribution process that brings those assets straight back to our HPE recyclers. And they then are gold with recovering as much of the raw materials in the precious metals.

Gair: The differences between buying new technology off the shelf and actually reutilizing technology and keeping the technology in the circle longer, the impact on the carbon footprint is massive.

Bird: Organizations have got plenty on their plates regarding sustainability, and asset recycling might not be top on the agenda. So why should they care?

Beyond the four walls of the data center

McGann: Interestingly, we had a conference with business leaders in Dublin a few months ago where we talked about this exact point. You know, one of the CTOs was talking about his experience and his focus, and he described it as inside his four walls, he was developing much more environmentally friendly power, he was re-engineering his data center equipment to ensure that it was as ecologically friendly as he could make it. And, you know, he really put a lot of effort and pride into creating as efficient a data center as possible.

However, I asked him, OK, so once it leaves your four walls, what's your concern then? And he said, that's a problem. Because up until these discussions, you didn't really think about it.

The point we're making to customers, partners, end-user data center managers, and CTOs is, yeah, look, that's not good enough just to worry about your own piece of the equation, because that's what drives bad behavior.

You do need to think beyond your four walls. You do need to think down the supply chain. And can you really assert that when you look at who you've used in the past to displace your equipment or dispose of your equipment, can you be sure what standards they meet? Do you understand where they're reselling their assets? Do you know what compliance they have? Do you know what they've done with the data? Have they certified it? Can you stand over those certifications? And, by the way, would you put that into your annual report?

Yeta: I talk about natural capital, and I talk about accounting for your activities. I know many organizations are great, and they're producing corporate social responsibility reports that are published on many of the organizations' websites. But also we need to think about natural capital; we need to think about net gains.

Accounting for all stages of the lifecycle

You're not just talking about the impact that our organization is causing on the environment―i.e., just talking about carbon emissions that are produced or talking about the waste that's produced. We need to trace it as far back as from when we are extracting these resources from the earth and make sure that we are capturing that impact in addition to everything that is going on through our value chain all the way to the end of life of devices, of assets, to give us a holistic picture and to be able to help organizations plan.

Bird: The big-picture lifecycle approach that Mattie's describing reinforces the importance of monitoring all stages of the cycle. The final circular economy pillar looks at replenishing natural resources. Many organizations include compensatory actions in their strategy, like planting trees or buying carbon credits. But is that really enough?

Yeta: I think there's a discussion there: Is it therefore right that organization can cut down trees in one part of the world and plant new trees?

I think it's not, and I don't think we should be looking at sustainability in that way. We should be looking to substitute their use of trees or their use of precious materials that are running out in the world. And this is where we're looking for technologies to be able to provide those substitutes.

Bird: If all of this has you wondering what concrete action you can take to make IT in your organization more sustainable, Mateo suggests looking a little closer to home.

Energy efficiency and infrastructure utilization

Dugand: In the data center space, the biggest environmental impact is associated with the usage phase, right? So the power, the cooling, and the natural resources that are associated with the use of a data center. That's at a level of 80 percent, by the way. The embodied carbon associated with the manufacturing of that asset is only 20 percent of the total environmental footprint. So 80 percent is the rest of that―that's the usage phase. So, if you consider that, then you kind of think like, well, where really organizations should have a look at in terms of requirements and sustainability, it should be probably, first of all, energy efficiency and how is the technology enabling them to manage efficiently their resources.

You could buy a washing machine that is triple A rating in terms of environment, right? And put it into your apartment and put one sock into your washing machine. How environmentally friendly is that? Not at all. Just the fact that you're basically not filling it properly is a waste of power, a waste of water, and therefore kind of an environmental crime. Basically the same thing happens with IT. You can get the best year out there with very energy efficient, which is still very important, right? You still need that triple A, very environmentally friendly washing machine in the first place, just like you still need very energy-efficient technology excellence in terms of infrastructure. But what happens next is also as important as that. And that means, how can you make sure that you're basically not underutilizing your infrastructure? How are you making sure that you're not overprovisioning your infrastructure?

Bird: One way to avoid overprovisioning infrastructure is employing infrastructure as a service. And you can hear more about that in our previous episode. If your organization can't or doesn't want to change the way it consumes IT, then Steve suggests reviewing your asset refresh cycles.

Environmental impact of old tech

Gair: Asset management takes a lot of discipline within an organization and often will drive when things will be refreshed. I've heard some crazy ideas in the past. I've actually seen some crazy practices as well, which is where technology is being utilized for maybe five, six, seven-plus years simply because that's the depreciation term and accounting policy. So straight away there's a conflict.

So an asset may be ready to be refreshed, swapped out, and changed, but because it hasn't reached its end of its depreciation cycle, the organization is holding back and preventing moving forward. And for me, the reason that's a decision that needs to be accelerated to refresh is the impact of utilizing aging technology―a major issue around performance, around footprint, around cooling, around the environmental impacts.

I think across the board, you've got an optimum level. And it's when is the right time to swap out technology compared to it being a financial strategy with regards to financial management and accounting principles.

Bird: We can approach corporate sustainability strategies and the circular economy from a number of angles, and it's important to mention that this is a living process. All organizations have a part to play, and there's always something more to learn.

Dugand: You should always have a look at where your numbers are coming from and make sure that they are aligned to science. One of the most famous sources [where] you can get these [is] the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. That's the institute for climate change, and that's worldwide renowned. In fact, if there's anything that you can read on those topics, just read the last report. And it's a very science-based approach. It's not dramatic. It's not looking for drama or to scare anyone. It's really how much greenhouse gas emissions can we still produce in order to keep the warming of the planet under 1.5 degrees.

Bird: Governing bodies like Defra are on hand to provide guidance and make sure that no organization is left behind.

Yeta: So the regulation policies are there. … It's about engaging and collaborating, sharing ideas and knowledge, sharing our innovations, and working together.

Bird: Working together also means holding each other accountable, whether as organizations or as consumers.

The power of consumers

Yeta: Consumers have a lot of power. So the decisions that we need in terms of purchasing products and services from companies, from organizations, [are based on] making sure that we know that the businesses and the companies that we're doing business with think about sustainability at the heart of their operations and what they do.

I always say that a company's profit margins and financial planning are a powerful tool, and if consumers can speak with that, companies will understand.

Bird: As overwhelming as it might seem, tackling sustainability head-on offers a vision of a brighter future.

Dugand: I think it's also very important to highlight that there is an opportunity out there. This is not only about scaring people because, yes, of course it is scary, but there is also another version of what we could do. There's also a beautiful opportunity for us to strive as a society, to strives in terms of business without having that impact on the environment, making sure that we're actually taking profit from it and really making sure that we're respecting it.

Bird: You've been listening to Technology Untangled, and a huge thanks to today's guests for joining us: Mateo Dugand, Steve Gair, Ray McGann, and Mattie Yeta. And you can find more information on today's episode in the show notes.

Make sure to hit "subscribe" in your podcast app, and join us next time when we'll be looking at hyperconverged infrastructure: speed, simplicity, scalability, and extreme consumption.

Today's show was written and researched by Isobel Pollard and was hosted by me, Michael Bird, with sound design and editing by Alex Bennett and production support from Harry Morton and Thomas Berry.

Technology Untangled is a Lower Street production for Hewlett Packard Enterprise in the U.K. and Ireland.

Thanks for tuning in and we'll see you next time.

Listen to other episodes:

What AI means for you and your business―now and in the future

As-a-Service: What it is and how it's changing the face of IT and business

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.