TCO Certified for data center products has been available for almost a year now. Barton Finn, Purchaser Engagement Manager at TCO Development, shares his insight on trends for sustainable data center products and the critical role procurement plays in driving progress.

We asked Barton about what’s important to purchasers if they are to advance the sustainability of data centers in a meaningful and comprehensive way.

“IT sustainability is a growing trend as the impact of this industry has become clear nowadays. Procurement sits at the frontline of the shift to sustainability as a core strategy, with more and more purchasers leveraging their decisions to influence the market towards broader societal goals. Still, one important piece seems to be missing in the picture so far: data centers.

Among the main reasons explaining this situation: the “invisible” and highly complex nature of data centers and the servers and other equipment they contain, which led manufacturers to focus on quick fixes, such as reducing energy consumption… But we are still not hearing much about other sustainability issues: what about supply chain responsibility for the manufacturing phase? Factory working conditions? Conflict minerals? Dangerous chemicals? The list is long, and with the exponential amount of data created each year – set to reach 74 zettabytes1 in 2021 – these questions on the sustainability of the devices handling our datastreams become highly relevant for purchasers.

Supporting the efforts for more sustainable data center products is precisely why we recently extended our certification to cover the hardware used in data centers. After months of initial engagement with purchasers around the use of these new product categories, here are some reflections on how the sustainability of data centers is currently tackled and what is key for moving forward:

1. Data center sustainability is about buildings… AND products

Our first observation is that the sustainability of data centers is predominantly approached from a facility-management perspective. In practice, this means that organizations working on the topic have mainly focussed on the buildings where data center devices are placed – leading for example to valuable solutions in areas such as efficient cooling systems, waste heat reduction and the use of renewable energy sources.

This focus on the sustainability performances of buildings is key but has also led to the overlooking of an equally important element: the products themselves. As a result, many organizations we talked to had indeed done little to nothing on sustainability at the device level, such as servers, network equipment and data storage products. It’s widely known that manufacturing of a product often represents the biggest impact for its entire life cycle, paying attention to its sustainability performances should therefore go hand in hand with the sustainability of the buildings where they operate. This is how we best achieve consistent progress.

2. Sustainability goes beyond just energy efficiency

The second key learning is that even when organizations do look at the sustainability performance of the products, they almost never go beyond energy efficiency – probably because of the combined sustainability and financial benefits it delivers.

Even if this tendency is understandable, we should instead always keep in mind that energy consumption is only one of the many dimensions where data center products can have an adverse impact on society. Supply chain social responsibility is one key area that organizations should also try to promote when buying data center hardware, as working hours and conditions remain continuous challenges throughout their supply chains. Product lifetime extension is another aspect deserving high priority as buying repairabl