The end of the linear: how the circular economy can help businesses and society thrive

By Carmen Ene, CEO of 3stepIT and BNP Paribas 3 Step IT - June 03, 2022

My parents fixed things. So did my grandparents. If something was broken, they often repaired it before they considered buying new.

However, somewhere along the way, repairing and reusing was forgotten as a process that creates value and owning the latest product became more important than using the right one.

And that’s particularly true for technology.


 

Digital leftovers

There’s no doubt the acceleration in digitalisation has delivered enormous benefits for businesses, consumers, and even the planet. However, it also contributed to shortening tech product cycles and increasing device consumption, often with insufficient attention paid to what was left behind.

Post-pandemic IT spending is still skyrocketing, placing a significant drain on natural resources through the manufacturing process. Businesses that have been hit by supply chain issues know better than anyone the impact of raw material shortages; nonetheless, best estimates say only 20% of tech is recycled, with more than 53 million metric tonnes of e-waste hitting landfills every year.

Thankfully, a mass awakening is underway as businesses start to realise the value in their waste.

 

Tech giants take on repair

The tech industry got the message, leading with the competitive pace we’ve come to expect. Last year, Microsoft’s shareholders pressured the company to take action on repairability, calling for an independent assessment of its benefits. If more compelling evidence was needed, the findings show that repairing instead of replacing devices can offer up to a 92% reduction in waste generation and 89% reduction in emissions. These results will be hard to ignore as Microsoft plans its response before year-end. 

Other manufacturers are already off and racing – Apple has launched a self-repair programme and is slated to introduce a long-awaited universal charger for future iPhones. Google and Samsung have also partnered with repair specialists iFixit to offer users spare parts. 

Whether to anticipate regulations, please shareholders and consumers, improve their planet-friendly reputation or tackle raw materials shortages, tech companies are starting to see the gold mine in our electronic waste. And they are not alone: the UK’s Royal Mint is constructing a new facility that will mine precious metals from discarded smartphones and laptops to make new coins, literally turning rubbish into gold 

Legislators go circular

As part of EU Green Week, decision-makers are gathering in Brussels this week to discuss how to capitalise on the $4.5 trillion in economic opportunities offered by the circular economy and respond to the explicit wishes of their constituents, of whom 77% would instead fix a device than buying a new one. 

 

The European Parliament is powering ahead with its ambition to transition to a circular economy by 2050. A packed legislative agenda is underway, including the Sustainable Products Initiative that will set our product-level requirements for electronics and other goods to deliver energy efficiency circularity and reduced climate impact. It’s complemented by new Right to Repair laws that will enshrine measures such as extended guarantees and intelligent labelling and define obsolescence as an unfair commercial practice. 


Getting ahead of the game

There’s a clear direction of travel from regulators and growing demand from shareholders and consumers for multiple-use products and practices; savvy business leaders seek to transform their operations in response.  

 

As our reliance on technology grows, many seek strategies to reduce the risk of their business-critical tech assets and build sustainable practices in their organisations. An approach must be top of the list for those looking to get ahead of the plan. 

 

Alternative ownership models, like device-as-a-service, facilitate access to technology rather than ownership and allow for repair, refurbishing and reuse to be part of the procurement process as part of regular renewal cycles. It’s an approach that many organisations are taking to reduce exposure to regulatory change, demonstrate measurable carbon reductions and, crucially, turn waste into a valuable asset that can fuel investment in business transformation.


Making tech your most sustainable business asset

The writing is on the wall for wasteful, single-use business practices, and, as our grandparents would say, time spent on preparation is seldom wasted. Organisations that adopt the circular economy now, before it becomes mainstream, will future proof critical areas of business risk and get ahead of the game on corporate responsibility as it inevitably tightens.

If we want to match profitable growth with reliable resources, it’s time for technology to become our most sustainable business asset.

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