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Sustainable solutions: 3 top tips for IT buyers

Ian Nethercot, MCIPS, supply chain director, Probrand / Probrand Marketplace

When you consider the lifecycle of a typical piece of IT equipment - from the materials used for components, to energy consumption and disposal - it quickly adds up. And that’s not to mention the logistics of getting shipments to businesses in the first place. It is perhaps unsurprising that an increasing burden is being placed on businesses to disclose their sustainability metrics and evidence ways in which they are improving, and IT procurement is one area which businesses can address to make a difference. In this article, Ian Nethercot, supply chain director at Probrand, shares three top tips for procuring IT equipment in a more sustainable way.

Sustainability has been on the corporate agenda for a number of years and procurement professionals are now under increased pressure to demonstrate responsibility through their supply chain. At least 90% of the tenders we complete as a business today include questions linked to sustainability; from the products we stock to the logistics of getting them to and from our clients. Some organisations we work with are going further, appointing a dedicated sustainability lead to ensure any IT purchases - and other business activities - align with the company’s sustainability goals. So, how can IT and procurement teams reduce their environmental impact and improve their sustainability credentials when refreshing and purchasing IT equipment, without compromising on quality or budget?

Rethink refurbished

Traditionally, schools and other public sector organisations have been the primary buyers of refurbished equipment, largely due to budget constraints. This is beginning to shift and we’re now seeing private sector organisations actively seeking refurbished IT to help support their sustainability agenda and help budgets stretch further. On average, refurbished hardware costs 30% less than the equivalent when buying new, but the advantages go far beyond price.

The standard of refurbished IT has improved dramatically in recent years and the quality of the hardware is often good as new. If physical condition is important - such as for certain devices that you want to be blemish-free - opt for Grade A. Items of a lower grade could be suitable where signs of wear and tear are less of an issue. Warranties on refurbished equipment have also improved in recent years, with many vendors offering two-year no-quibble guarantees on refurbished products. This could be twice the length of the warranty on a new product, providing a safety net for those who still have doubts when it comes to second-hand purchases.

Buyers who opt for new equipment can investigate the materials used in the hardware and accessories, choosing those made from recycled materials wherever possible. Items such as energy-saving displays and devices with automatic power-off functions can also make an environmentally friendly contribution. Some vendors will actively promote these sustainability credentials in the product listings and descriptions, but in other cases it can be harder to find. To avoid doubt, it is always worth checking with the supplier to query the materials, condition and terms of warranty.

Look at logistics

Beyond ensuring the equipment itself aligns with sustainability goals, it is important that buyers consider how their purchases will be delivered. Next-day delivery can be convenient for emergency items but will often come with an environmental implication. Instead, consider consolidating deliveries into one bulk order, which can be dispatched once all items are ready and could drastically reduce the impact of delivery. However, this might not be possible with all marketplaces, as some resellers do not have warehouses capable of storing stock and therefore only offer immediate dispatch direct from the vendor.

The packaging of items is another consideration when it comes to sustainability, as this can place a huge burden on businesses that are ordering IT equipment in bulk. Not only can packaging be expensive to dispose of in the most environmentally friendly way, but it also has an associated ‘soft cost’ in the labour it takes to unpack each device. Instead, try researching vendors and suppliers who offer the option of delivering ‘packaging-free’, or explore third party packaging-removal services. Everyone has experienced ordering a small item, only for it to arrive in a giant box with excessive packaging. Even for items that are packaged more economically, if you’re a large organisation putting in regular orders, it can add up. A ‘Delivery to desk’ service can help here. As the name would suggest, this involves delivering equipment right to the user’s desk, unboxing it and taking all packaging away to be properly recycled. There is usually a cost associated with this service, but it is typically offset by the savings in labour and packaging disposal.

Dispose responsibly

When purchasing IT equipment in a more sustainable way, consider how the old technology will be disposed of. Devices should never be thrown away alongside other business waste, which is illegal under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013, and there are regulations regarding the protection of data that the devices contain which should be adhered to by law. There are a growing number of accredited IT waste disposal companies who will handle this in the most sustainable way and many vendors offer recycling schemes free of charge.

There is often a lot of residual value in items such as laptops, PCs, monitors and display units, so it is worth looking at what can be recycled rather than disposed of. This is particularly true for those businesses that invested heavily in new equipment during the pandemic, when a shortage of supply meant that a number of IT teams purchased whatever was available. In many cases, this resulted in equipment that was a higher specification than necessary. In the next IT refresh, this equipment could be traded in for refurbished devices of a more appropriate specification, resulting in cost savings and potentially providing physical cash back for the business. Before disposing of any IT - whether recycling or trading in - remember to backup any data and clear your equipment of all sensitive information in advance.

As an industry, it is vital that we share knowledge and some of the small practices that can add up to make a big difference. There are a host of available resources, from LinkedIn groups to vendor newsletters and networking events focussing on sustainability within the IT sector. Manufacturers also have their part to play in helping to drive the change. Marketing products according to their sustainability credentials and making the specifications sheets as clear as possible will help vendors, buyers and - ultimately - the end user to make better choices. If we can each take a small step today, we can begin to improve as an industry, not only helping to achieve our sustainability goals but becoming more competitive and potentially more profitable in the long run.