Squaring up to a circular IT strategy

With today’s emphasis on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) weighing heavy on the minds of C-suite IT directors everywhere, the need to embrace the principles of the circular economy is front of mind in enterprises across the spectrum - CMO of mixed IT asset specialist PlanITROI has some sage advice to share.

Wooden cubes; the symbols of circular economy and a potted plant in the background

The circular economy is with us. Although it’s a term that nobody would have intuitively understood a decade or so ago, we all now appreciate the need for enterprises to surface a conscious and ethically sound approach to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). Part of that ESG drive for many businesses now is embracing the circular economy.

Defined as a model of production, consumption and usage that champions sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling materials, products and some services, the circular economy lends itself well to the world of information technology. So much is this the case that we actually adopt, own and reclassify the term itself and now talk about circular computing.

With images of trashed laptops, desktops and monitors going to recycling plants in our minds, circular IT is not about melting down keyboard plastic to make drinking bottles. It concerns a more fundamental shift in use during the working life of hardware and in fact software too.

Mind your ARS

The most commonly used industry definition for tech product circularity is IT Asset Disposition/Disposal (ITAD) or the somewhat unfortunately named Asset Recovery System (ARS) approach. Both are strategies designed to help the environment. But IT asset disposal doesn't have to be an expensive dead end argues Matt Barker in his role as chief marketing officer (CMO) of mixed IT asset specialist PlanITROI

“By taking advantage of the circular economy, organisations can reduce their electronic waste, while simultaneously transforming their retired computing into an underserved community's treasures. Essentially, it’s taking the waste out of e-waste! An organisation’s retired laptops and other computing assets may no longer have use to your organisation, however, it’s a key part of bridging the digital divide in communities that lack access to affordable recertified computing technology to learn and earn with,” said Barker.

The core message for CIOs is, please stop calling your recycling services supplier. Every developed nation has specialist firms that focus on the resale and donation of refurbished recertified computing devices. Forward-thinking ITAD and ARS business models are built around environmental reuse, social consciousness and the circular repurposing of IT assets.

A shift in business model

The move to circular computing and the evolution of an enterprise (small, medium or large) to consider the ownership of almost all assets as ‘partial life’ entities is a significant shift. Traditional notions of Capital Expenditure (CapEx) denote purchases as owned capital. In the eyes of the accounts department, these expenditures are ‘amortised’ and the clue is in the name here: they have a life span and they are ultimately killed off and written off.

A circular economic approach to IT does not classify products (and some software services, where old or excess licences can be passed on or resold) as fuel cells that are ultimately extinguished.

“Most recycling and IT asset disposition business models have a component of resale and donation, but C-suite IT directors will want to know if their old computing is really ending up helping someone in need of digital transformation. The good news is that you can follow the trail to the end. Ask your provider if you can see an impact report (with anonymised personal details) relating to where your old laptop went. All laptops have a serial number and all responsible R2 (a Responsible Recycling standard) recyclers are responsible for recording and reporting where machines end up,” advised Barker.

This suggestion doesn’t mean that companies will be able to see that their receptionist’s old laptop went to Frank in Birmingham or Barbera in Belgravia. It means that the company will be able to see that it has been used domestically, exported to a third-world market, or that it has been recycled for components and commodities.

PlanITROI’s Barker suggests that while some equipment may get a second life in its country of first use, it’s also common to see your old laptop leaving the country it got its repurposing orders in. But whatever arrangement is made, this entire process doesn’t happen without (often one person, think Greta) somebody in an organisation pushing the business to start helping communities and the planet this way. Somebody needs to be an ITAD hero and it could be you.

“Refurbishing and recertifying your firm’s old laptops and other electronic equipment will make total economic, environmental and social sense - and it means that the business is joining the circular economy as a true contributor. You are creating an economic ecosystem by giving these retired computing assets a second life with the possibility to change someone’s economic outcome from having an affordable computing device to learn and earn from,” said Barker.

Thinking about the extent to which programmes like circular ITAD need to reach, the PlanITROI team suggest that equipment reuse targets should aim to hit somewhere around 90% of old computing devices. It is obviously important to only work with circular repurposing firms that can offer military-grade encryption/wiping of existing assets - and most firms will shoulder some of that security groundwork in-house as well to provide a belt and braces approach.

Cleaned to ISO standards

If we follow PlanITROI’s perspective and advice here (which we should), organisations should only work with secure refurbishment providers that conform to international standards. In this case, that means companies that are ISO 27001 and NAID AAA certified to perform NIST and DOD data erasures and destruction of data, making corporate information completely inaccessible. This facilitates the first stage in the secure refurbishment and recertification process.

“In addition, laptops are then audited, OEM tested and then (for Windows PCs) must be recertified with a Microsoft Authorised Refurbished operating system (Windows, obviously) reload to ensure legal compliance with Microsoft licensing laws. These processes can turn an old laptop into a recertified reusable learning and earning computing device for the next user. Ready to be introduced into underserved communities for resale or donation,” explained Barker.

Alongside the essential eco-factors at play here, there’s also a palpable feel-good factor for employees i.e. most people are quite happy and enlightened when they know their old equipment is being given a second life.

Describing itself as a secure purpose-driven ITAD/ARS company, in May of 2022 PlanITROI and its partner Acer in conjunction with Pivotal (a Silicon Valley non-profit organisation focused on the education of foster children) provided laptops to aid the local education sector in San Jose, California. The work is part of PlanITROI’s Digital Dreams project.

Pivotal's high school coach supervisor Dazzamine Maldonado noted that, "Surely before, but even more so after the pandemic, the need for good tech at home is crucial for college students."

ESG needs symbiotic synergy

It seems fairly clear, that good ESG practice is not just down to using plastic water bottles made out of shopping bags, organising team wellbeing off-sites and making sure there are anti-corruption checks run throughout an organisation’s supply chain.

As PlanITROI’s Barker puts it himself, “Secure purpose-driven ITAD & ARS enable a business to participate in the circular economy - it's a way to involve yourself in a more inclusive economic ecosystem.”

For ESG to be an organic part of an organisation’s wider efforts to work well, it's not enough to check a box. True social involvement derives from a symbiotic involvement with the world outside an organisation’s doors. Now, don’t you feel better about yourself already?