Andy Gomarsall, executive director, N2S, explains why the circular economy has now become a megatrend, yet many in the IT channel are still unaware.

It was an interesting day at Channel Live back in March where I had the opportunity to discuss sustainability and the circular economy. Ever since I was signposted to the term ‘circular economy’ it has been a business mission of mine to share and learn more on this subject.

It has now been a decade of learning for me. The term made so much sense to me having been brought up by my parents to look after the things you buy. Of course, I got this wrong many times and my Mum would always let me know!

I will never ever forget trashing my new trainers within a day, and not hearing the end of it! This was not only drummed into me, but I also witnessed the many actions my father would show me, of extending the life of a product, by repairing and therefore using longer.

It also helps when you understand the inner workings from a technical point of view but also the ease of repairability. While we all want to buy technology that is robust, it also needs an ease of replacing a battery for instance. What was not evident was the reason, other than cost and how it saves us money.

A linear model in which we have found ourselves growing up in, is a model where we have plentiful material to make products and then throw them away. But with the growth in population and an infinite mindset, landfill and the leaking methane grew to uncontrollable levels, and there needed to be a rethink to this growing problem of disposals.

Growing demands has led to demand for material extraction and the globe almost exclusively relies on new virgin materials, damaging our planet.

The circular economy

So what is the circular economy? This is defined as “an economic system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials or products, especially as a means of continuing production in a sustainable or environmentally friendly way.”

This concept will still need the benefit of economics, but the many other reasons have now become clearer. We live in a world now whereby reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is at a critical stage, and companies need and will be governed by decarbonising their businesses.

The obvious caveat here (as I often hear, not my problem or how can I actually do anything to make a dent) is that c. 73 per cent of global emissions are due to the legacy of using fossil fuels, there has been little obvious and easy alternatives.

The journey has begun for a greener energy transition to renewables, but is it greener? If we can prove that a circular methodology has been adopted, we could then have the potential to say so.

The unfortunate truth is we have built the renewable products with a linear mindset, cue solar and wind. Circular economy has to start in the design phase of these future products. With regard to the energy transition, why did we not look into the design of solar and wind?

At the very first stage of solar panels being need to be refreshed, we have a very limited view on how we recycle them, the current rate of recycling is 1 in 10 panels recycled, the rest landfill! Such a failure on all proportions and we see wind turbines are having to be buried in situ!

Now for the technology sector, how does this compare? I have been working with many vendors and with this being an emerging and potentially disruptive stage in their business, the investment is lacking. Many do not measure circularity, some do. The best I have seen is that they are 17 per cent circular in a particular product. Plenty of opportunity to improve.

Sustainability journeys

Some of the questions posed for the panel I spoke on were how can IT service providers, systems integrators, MSP’s and distributors and resellers bring their clients on the journey?

Why is sustainability rising in importance when businesses are making purchasing decisions? How can businesses and organisations across the UK be supported in their sustainability objectives? What sustainability strategies do you anticipate will come into focus in the next 12 months?

The very experienced panel including Sarwar Khan, sustainability director at BT Group, gave some interesting suggestions and anecdotes as well as positively promoting the need for more transparency. When I engage many stakeholders in the IT channel of varying ages and ask who has heard of circular economy, the hands raised are very, very low. We have a duty to spread this education and it is an opportunity for the future workforce to adopt this mindset and create new roles.

In 2017, the circle economy foundation recognised the importance of measurement for a circular economy. At this time, there had been zero evidence or baseline measurement on the circular state of the world.

In 2018 The circularity gap report was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This report established that our world was only 9.1 per cent circular, leaving a huge gap. In 2023, global circularity fell to 7.2 per cent driven by material extraction and use.

So, circular economy has reached megatrend status but circularity is in decline? A 21 per cent drop over 5 years, and according to CGRi, we have consumed over 500 gigatonnes of materials in this time, that is 28 per cent of all the materials humanity has consumed since 1900! Material extraction in a linear economy will rise to dangerous heights.

Between Paris and Glasgow COPs, more than half a trillion tonnes of virgin materials were consumed. Each year we have smashed through the planet’s safe environmental limits. By adopting circular practises, the view of the opportunity is to reduce material extraction and use by a third.

The IT channel is seeing more and more requests to measure the lifecycle of products from design, use and end of life. Their challenge now is for their clients to use less, use longer, use again and regenerate. A total reset of a sales target.

Continuous learning

The IT channel needs to build on the learnings of circular economy and build expertise and skills empowering employees. The playing field is changing, with fresh policy and legal frameworks that incentivise circularity and penalise linear.

The IT industry is constantly evolving, so working in the IT channel requires continuous learning and skill development, which can be intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding. New partnerships are developing in the IT channel exposing us to a wider network of professionals, vendors, and clients, which can lead to deeper client relationships and sustainable opportunities.

The strength of the IT channel is how we get early access to new products and technologies, allowing us to stay ahead of the curve and provide cutting-edge solutions but they need to be embedded with sustainability and circular economy. What a great opportunity.