This is a pivotal moment for humanity, as time runs out to restrict global warming to manageable levels. Businesses, governments and consumers must pull together to tackle the climate crisis. Given the outsized influence it has on our lives, the tech industry has a particularly important part to play in this effort. Yet, while the sector has taken great strides to reduce its carbon footprint and become less wasteful, many tech firms are still struggling to become truly sustainable.
Working towards sustainability is not only about changing how you design, produce and distribute your goods and services. It’s also about reducing emissions throughout the supply chain, embedding circularity and continually refining your policies and practices.
Becoming a truly “purpose-driven” company takes work, but it needn’t be daunting. It’s also key to success in business. So says Nancy Powell, HP’s sustainability manager in the UK and Ireland. Having worked in the sustainability field for 25 years, she can offer many insights about the industry’s progress to date – and how much further it still has to go.
Q: What are the sector’s main sustainability challenges?
“There are several. First, consider the sheer volume of products it manufactures. Tech plays a huge role in our lives, touching almost everything we do – and that’s only going to grow. The devices we use require an ever-increasing amount of materials to produce and energy to power. This inevitable draw on our resources will always butt up against companies’ sustainability goals.
“Second, there’s the footprint of the tech businesses themselves. Many have made progress in consolidating data centres and consuming less energy, but firms big and small struggle to gather the data they need to fully understand their carbon footprints. That makes it harder to see how far you’re getting towards your targets and what needs to change. It’s also more difficult to show shareholders, regulators and customers your direction of travel.
“Third is the gap between policy and delivery. Companies set themselves ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions and waste but often lack the right leadership culture to achieve these. At HP, the time we take between decision and delivery is short, meaning that change happens quickly. That’s unfortunately not the case in many tech businesses.”
Q: What is circularity and why is it so important to achieve?
“In essence, it starts with recycling: taking a used product back, repairing and reusing it (or extracting material from it that can be repurposed). It’s about closing the loop and achieving resource efficiency. The tech world is notorious for generating waste, so it’s vital that it achieves circularity. Consumers see tech waste as a big issue and expect firms to act on it.
“Ensuring the traceability of goods labelled as circular is an ongoing challenge, but there are solutions. In the US, for example, HP is piloting a ‘product passport’ in which a QR code on the device links to evidence of how and where that item was made, right from the raw materials used. This potentially powerful transparency tool could be rolled out across the tech industry relatively easily.”
Q: What other tools can help businesses become more sustainable?
“There are lots of tools available on the reporting side, from Global Reporting Initiative frameworks to eco-labels. Firms are also working on ways to help consumers compare the sustainability credentials of devices. HP’s sales team has a new dashboard that it’s using to provide customers with such data, for instance. We’re increasingly being expected to have a set of data for each device sold to show its impact. We’re also trialling desktop icons on devices at the point of sale that consumers can use to access the information.
“We have ongoing conversations with our commercial partners about specifications and usage, which helps us to design and build better products. Similar discussions are happening across the wider industry – and these must continue.”
Q: What short- and long-term sustainability policies should tech firms be considering?
“It’s important to understand which aspects of your business have the greatest material impact on its carbon footprint. At HP, it’s in manufacturing and delivery in the supply chain, so policies affecting this part of the business will make the greatest difference. For example, we’ve given customers a choice between sea and air freight. We’re also removing plastics from packaging and making user instructions paperless.
“It’s crucial to influence your partners’ behaviour too. We have over 3,700 channel partners in our Amplify Impact Programme worldwide with which we share our policies, strategies and training through a sustainability engagement programme. Some are big organisations with similar infrastructure to ours; some aren’t. You help them have these conversations about sustainability and you learn from them as well. Firms must constantly review their methods as circumstances change.”
Q: Why is it so crucial for the sector to surmount the barriers blocking its route to circularity and sustainability?
“The climate situation is urgent for everyone, so we must all pull together. Business has a vital role to play here, given the expertise it has, the outreach it can achieve and the impact it can make by decarbonising. Tech will be at the forefront, because of its prevalence in so many lives. It’s also the sector that will enable many others to transform themselves, so it needs to take the lead. As its sustainability drive accelerates over the next five to 10 years, this is going to be a really exciting space to be in.”
Visit HP.com to learn more about the company’s commitment toward sustainability.