Embedding sustainability into asset lifecycles is a natural way for organizations to reduce e-waste, support environmental mandates and save money.
Today's CIOs and their teams must examine ways to help lower costs and meet environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. One area that can help them do both is IT asset management (ITAM) which helps teams consider costs, features and other factors. Taking a sustainability-minded approach to IT asset management can help reduce the tech trash and other negative climate effects that frequent upgrades generate.
The problem of e-waste
In 2019, the global generation of e-waste was 53.6 metric tons, according to the "Global Transboundary E-waste Flows Monitor 2022," report published by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.
Only 17% of electrical and electronic equipment disposal was in an "environmentally sound manner," the report noted. In addition, the fate of 83%, or 44.3 metric tons, is unaccounted for, meaning those devices and assets were likely dumped, burned, traded or recycled without respect to compliance standards.
Company tech is a tremendous source of e-waste, with 89% of companies recycling less than 10% of their IT hardware, according to the 2021 report "Sustainable IT: Why it's time for a Green Revolution for your organization's IT" from research and advisory firm Capgemini.
That low figure may be a direct result of failing to create a culture of green IT.
Forty-one percent of organizations that responded provide sustainable awareness training to their employees, while 31% incentivize employees to adopt more sustainable behavior in their use of IT services, according to Capgemini's report.
Pressure is building for these figures to improve.
CIOs and IT leaders will have to get on board with sustainable IT asset management -- if they're not already -- for several reasons, said AJ Witt, industry analyst at The ITAM Review, an online community for ITAM professionals. First, customers want to do business with companies that follow sustainability best practices. Employees also want to work for sustainable organizations.
"Also, if we're heading into a recession, the first thing we do is start cutting costs," Witt said. "You need to get to grips with those costs, and one way of doing that is making sure you're buying a sustainable kit that's not being replaced every two years."
6 ways to achieve sustainable ITAM
Here are six ways IT leaders can achieve sustainable IT asset management.
1. Have end-of-life in mind
Every IT asset acquired by an organization will have a specific lifespan, and IT leaders should anticipate when it happens, even at the time of purchase.
IT leaders need to think about the final stages of the IT asset lifecycle during procurement, said Carmen Ene, CEO at 3stepIT, a technology lifecycle management provider headquartered in Helsinki.
"Normally [people] think of the acquisition, and they look at how cheap or expensive it is," Ene said. "A lot of times, they don't start planning their IT acquisition [by thinking about] what's going to happen after."
Specific concerns should guide IT asset investments before making a purchase, Ene said. Some of those questions could include the following:
- How will I dispose of these assets?
- Where will these assets eventually end up?
- Prior to redeployment or disposal, how will I ensure that the data on these assets is properly wiped?
This latter point is important if companies want to avoid financial and reputational damage, Ene said. For example, in September 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission fined financial services firm Morgan Stanley $35 million for improper disposal of devices that contained sensitive customer data.
2. Automate IT asset tracking
Achieving sustainable ITAM is impossible if you don't know where all your assets are.
CIOs and IT leaders should establish processes to account for assets accurately, Witt said. The following could be a part of a checklist to track assets:
- location of the asset, such as what network it's on and whose desk it's sitting on;
- who's using the asset;
- warranty date and length of service life; and
- overall repair history.
Gathering this data can be more difficult in a hybrid work model, he said.
"The challenge can be, in this new world of remote working, keeping that same level of visibility," Witt said.
However, ITAM tools have started to take hybrid and remote work models into account, he said.
Good data from hardware manufacturers is still lacking, Witt said. When enterprises deployed CRT monitors, it was easy to determine whether they were Energy Star-compliant thanks to the TCO certification sticker on the unit.
"Having that level of data in our tools to know that this laptop [from ABC manufacturer] is 10% more efficient than the laptop from [XYZ manufacturer] really lets you make informed purchasing decisions," Witt said. "Your procurement team can think not just about how much per unit this is going to cost me in terms of money, but the total cost."
3. Prolong IT asset life
A sustainable IT asset management approach involves maximizing asset lifecycles.
One of the first things organizations can do to be more sustainable is to control device usage and use devices for longer, said Benjamin Alleau, group sustainability initiative leader at Capgemini Group and co-author of the "Sustainable IT" report.
Three years is the average device lifespan in many organizations, Alleau said. Extending that period to four years reduces the carbon footprint significantly. On the other hand, replacing devices less frequently can present challenges. For starters, it can be difficult to maintain performance and efficiencies since devices need continued vendor support and software upgrades.
For GEP, a supply chain and operations consulting firm headquartered in Clark, N.J., taking control of upkeep has been critical to more sustainable ITAM.
GEP has increased the lifecycle of laptops from three to five years, said Ramachander Raja, global head of finance at the company. This process is possible because his team oversees repairs and manages their depreciation, especially near the latter part of their service life. The company works with an IT asset decommissioning service provider to redeploy laptops to schools.
Ramachander RajaGlobal head of finance, GEP
"We also work with specialized providers who, for different kinds of equipment, can make sure they're maximizing [the] recovery of the material so that as little as possible ends up in a landfill," Raja said.
GEP will also redeploy older laptops to temporary employees, such as summer interns who spend only two months at the firm.
Extending the life of assets can be difficult or even impossible if vendors force obsolescence. However, that's starting to change.
In the past, prolonging IT hardware lifecycles was difficult because vendor support expired, on average, after three years, Raja said. These days, vendors have become more flexible.
"We can buy slightly more sophisticated hardware that allows for a much longer life, [while remaining] at the level of performance we need through software updates," he said.
Putting pressure on vendors to support better environmental practices is key to sustainable ITAM and other areas.
"We have to make sure that together, with the suppliers, we can achieve [sustainability]," Capgemini Group's Alleau said.
4. Get employee buy-in
Shiny new devices are exciting to people, making the concept of a prolonged IT asset lifecycle challenging.
But getting buy-in becomes less of an issue when tech teams can keep devices operating at the level of performance required for employees to do their jobs, Raja said. Employees -- especially members of the younger generation -- are supportive of sustainability efforts.
Employee buy-in also increases when companies communicate the reasons behind initiatives such as sustainable IT asset management, Raja said. When issuing used laptops to interns, for example, each worker receives a note explaining the following:
- The machine may have an odd scratch or dent, but it's configured to perform like new.
- The device is part of the organization's overall sustainability strategy.
- The company thanks employees for their role in contributing to its go-green effort.
"They understand, they're happy to be part of it and they appreciate the larger goal," Raja said.
5. Address IT device hygiene
The hybrid work model has many employees working remotely, so IT teams must train workers on how to use and care for their equipment so it lasts longer.
Employees receive instructions when they take delivery of their work-from-home technology, Raja said. An accompanying guide provides tips such as the following:
- Don't leave laptops in direct sunlight for extended periods.
- Unplug laptops during electrical storms to prevent power surges to the unit.
- To extend battery life, work on the laptop's battery until it is down to 30% and then plug the machine back in.
"Part of the journey is taking good care of these assets, and [employees] understand that this is critical," Raja said.
6. Consider the cloud
Proactive IT leaders can seek out fresh ways to minimize hardware purchases, such as investments in cloud services.
When procuring technology, Raja's team balances whether they need hardware or cloud services, which may be more sustainable and more appropriate for the use case, he said.