It’s All Connected: E-Waste and Corporate Right to Repair
June 9, 2023
6 min read
It’s hard to talk about topics like e-waste and sustainability from the corporate or IT perspective without sounding preachy on one hand or self-serving on the other.
But a quick look at the technology we all use to create business growth shows without question that more needs to be done in terms of a green IT future. And while personal measures are a great way to reduce our immediate impact on the environment, it’s just as true that corporate actors worldwide share an even bigger portion of responsibility.
Origina is pleased to announce its new status as the lead corporate sponsor of This Spaceship Earth, a nonprofit committed to fighting climate change through e-waste reduction and other measures. In honor of this partnership and This Spaceship Earth’s eye-opening presentation at Empower 2023 – Year of the Healthy Skeptic, let’s explore the connection between e-waste, business growth, third-party software maintenance, and the business’s right to repair the hardware and software it relies on, starting with a sector you might not have considered: automatic teller machines.
In some workplaces, Windows 7 is a relic of the past. In others, it remains an active part of crucially important business functions, powering both infrastructure and endpoints. Many businesses in the second camp found themselves looking for a solution when Microsoft announced the OS would go on end of support in early 2020.
As Origina Founder, Tomás O’Leary, says in the Empower 2023 session “It’s Your Right to Repair,” it is the kind of decision on the vendor’s part that creates shockwaves on the buyer’s end. Suddenly, companies using certain ATM hardware found themselves with a date by which their perfectly viable products would become – in essence – wholly unsecurable via standard measures such as patching, open to exploits the likes of which humanity hasn’t seen since “Terminator 2.”
In more pressing cases, increases in hardware requirements between Windows 7 and Windows 10 locked certain ATM models out of upgrading entirely, making full replacement the only option.
Of course, you can’t fully fault a business for acting in its own best interest. Microsoft undoubtedly had several financial and technical reasons to drop support for the aging OS in favor of newer alternatives, and they gave companies plenty of notice that the inevitable day was coming.
But besides that, it’s just as fair to say everyone on the other side of the counter – the company that supplies the ATMs, the hardware’s users, and the average onlooker – would generally be happier with those ATMs staying in-place, not being crammed into a landfill or an e-recycling warehouse, whatever financial or environmental motivations bring them to the conclusion.
It’s waste that doesn’t need to exist. Which is fitting, considering “waste” doesn’t exist in nature; things get reused, repurposed, and naturally recycled.
More to the point, the objective here is not to bash Microsoft, but to use a small-scale story to paint a picture of a large-scale issue. Whether the decision comes from the primary user, one of their vendors, or other circumstances entirely, businesses are moving away from good hardware at a faster clip than they need to.
Backed by a model that puts upgrading hardware first over fixes that would extend the life of the same solution, it begins to look like the seller is the only one who wins in that sort of landscape.
As FreeICT Europe Foundation Executive Director Jan Hoogstrate says during “It’s Your Right to Repair,” this is the juncture at which environmental concerns such as e-waste and larger concepts such as the Right to Repair become a monolithic issue for businesses.
The challenge and the opportunity for companies to react appropriately present themselves in a lot of ways. And the topic is so complex, one simple statement of fact can be taken in numerous directions.
Take This Spaceship Earth Co-Founder Tim Rumage’s claim that e-waste contains more gold per pound than gold ore. Verifiably true at face value, the statement also carries several important implications:
It’s the fourth point where the business’s Right to Repair, typically presented as a consumer-only topic in the media, becomes important to the conversation. Both as an idea businesses should be more familiar with and as a tool they can use to create better economic and financial realities from the technologies they currently use.
When you hear the phrase “Right to Repair,” you probably think cell phones and farm equipment. Not, by contrast, mainframes or enterprise software.
But the term has meaning in corporate context. And one can only anticipate that its mindshare will grow in business tech circles, the enterprise, and even government as ever-growing technology demand contributes to ever-growing piles of corporate-created electronic waste.
Most of the core concepts here overlap with consumer or small-business applications. A person with a formerly cutting-edge phone might be displeased to find the decreasingly smooth performance they’ve experienced over the years is the result of planned software changes, not the continual hardware degradation they assumed to be the culprit. A small business owner — leasing out ATMs, perhaps — is never happy to learn changes outside their control will force major hardware changes or software upgrades.
Simply put, software decisions should never make hardware move out faster than it needs to, because most outgoing hardware ends up a major net negative on the environment.
The same notion applies in the offices of IT decision-makers across the enterprise. With so much of their active budget already going to software maintenance, anything that allows them to move hardware only when absolutely needed, while still maintaining or increasing service levels, has immediate appeal.
Just like consumers, businesses use fewer goods and resources when they have the option to repair what they have. Just like consumers, individual business stakeholders don’t want to overspend when the budget/resources could be used on incremental improvement instead of reductive, but necessary, maintenance. And just like consumers, a lot of businesses appear to be trapped in a cycle where the seller decides the product lifecycle, down to deciding whether an upgrade is necessary (whether or not it actually is).
Businesses must take a cue from defensive-minded consumers and start questioning vendors and their tactics. If not for the sake of the environment, which should be motivation enough, then for overall business health.
“‘Why?’ is the biggest question, I think, because you’re conditioned to stay in certain modus,” Hoogstrate says, referring to the enterprise’s tendency to combat problems and obsolescence by outright replacing hardware. “Why should I replace this? Why should I not repair this? […] Manufacturers need to keep the numbers up, [but consumption] needs to go down 30, 40, even 50 percent to reach decoupling – to get resources back to a level that’s acceptable.”
Rumage agrees, saying professionals need to focus more on “asking the right questions” rather than “finding the right answers.”
“You can start anywhere,” Rumage continues. “Because it is all connected.”
For direct-managing IT stakeholders, that might mean broaching the topic of more sustainable upgrade, modernization, and maintenance procedures for infrastructural hardware and – per the ATM example above – software with higher-level decision-makers. For technical managers themselves, it could mean taking a more stringent look at contract terms for licensing and support that seem to always evolve in the vendor’s favor.
Likewise, it also could require the company to lean on third-party maintenance and support help that provides expertise and a new viewpoint when the hardware megavendor’s only prescribed option is an upgrade, and thus more waste.
In any event, for the enterprise at large, it will almost certainly mean a greater focus on maintaining the existing infrastructure without sacrificing escalating performance and capability needs.
It is doable, but only with a significant change in mindset. And in the commission of changing this, the idea that upgrading every problem and performance issue away – instead of looking for ways to keep good hardware in-place – must go.
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