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How Cisco is living its next best life as a more sustainable company

Katy Ring Profile picture for user Katy Ring February 29, 2024
Cisco has sustainability targets and ambitions - here's how it's executing on them.

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Like so many tech companies, Cisco is very vocal about its sustainability goals. It recently announced a 15-year agreement with Spanish renewable energy provider IGNIS to buy approximately 60,000 MWh per year of solar energy, enabling IGNIS to build a new solar plant in Spain. The plan is that the new plant will provide enough solar energy to provide 100% of Cisco’s electricity for Cisco’s European operations.

Prior to this agreement Cisco was already making good progress towards its net zero target across its supply chains by 2040. Last year it scored 66 in S&P Global’s ESG Score, which is a very commendable rating. In 2023 Cisco also appointed Mary de Wysocki as its first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer. As well as running data centers and networks, Cisco is, of course, also a product company, best known for its routers. At its recent Cisco Live event in Amsterdam the company took the time to showcase its partnership with Reconext, a supply chain partner managing product take-back, refurbishment and re-use.

Managing a daintier carbon footprint

It is well-known that the tech industry consumes huge levels of energy to power data centers and networks, and it is also increasingly difficult to believe carbon offsetting initiatives are genuinely creating a more sustainable environment. This is because it is often difficult to measure and quantify that the amount of CO2e being removed is equal to or greater than the amount generated. Too often offsetting does not seem to be paired with a serious attempt to reduce emissions. However, Cisco’s deal with IGNIS appears to be a pragmatic, much more credible approach to reducing emissions.

The other big challenge tech hardware vendors face is the amount of waste generated by hardware that becomes outdated very quickly and is discarded. The popular antidote to this lies with the repair and recycling of products, as we move from a linear to a circular model with multiple lifecycles. The circular economy is an easy phrase to say, but the practicalities of shifting to that model are harder to execute on.

Creating the virtuous product circle

To create a circular economy, vendors need to consider the way products are made and what they are made from, how they use energy, and how easy they are to reuse and recycle. By adopting a circular approach, Cisco has already achieved a 24% reduction in its use of plastic, a 22% reduction in form, and a 65% increase in recyclable product packaging since its base year of 2019. 

Cisco engineers now use a circular design evaluation tool. As part of the new circular design process, engineers are asked to disassemble each product that they design to see how challenging it may be to repair and recycle. Circular processes are embedded in all product requirements and for materials Cisco has moved to using more lightweight, recycled plastics. Parts are standardized and modularized to ease repairability, usability and serviceability. Packaging is also more standardized, uses more recyclable materials and is less reliant on plastic bags (cabling is a big offender in the bagging area!)

Working with partners such as Reconext, Cisco recycles nearly 100% of the material in the devices that customers and partners hand back in, a service that is paid for by Cisco. For hyperscale customers, use of Cisco recycling centers has become a part of their migration policies, and it also features in many customer and partner credit retainer agreements, stock rotation policies and trade-in deals.

The Reconext facility in the Netherlands that diginomica visited, conducts all the activities and processes required for Cisco Europe, Middle East and Africa to reuse returned electronic devices. The facility conducts visual inspection, triage, testing, grading, wiping, repairing, and refurbishing of devices and the harvesting of parts.

The receivers at the facility take each device apart to see if it is fit for reuse, or whether parts need to be harvested. If the assessment suggests harvesting, then each part needs to go for servicing, for refresh or back into manufacturing. All data is wiped from the devices at the facility (or remotely if that is required by the customer), along with the configuration data scripts.

The facility also has a 3D printing capability to create things such as new dust caps, and a test area where new firmware can be pre-configured before going out the door. Reconext Netherlands is handling around 40,000 different stock keeping units (SKU)s for Cisco, and assets come into the facility as individual items or palletized. Robots, computer vision and AI are not yet part of this recycling process.

My take 

Of course, all companies exist to make money, but if they can make the world a slightly better place at the same time, why wouldn’t they? The problem is that making money (by growing bigger and making and selling more stuff) often conflicts with climate goals.

A fashionable reframing is to focus on cost reduction – how can sustainability initiatives save you money as energy costs climb? Naturally, Cisco has this covered with their customers via assessment services that can apply real-time data to evaluate energy use to help with decisions about the timing of a network refresh.

Enterprises and Service Providers want to be able to report the energy usage of their networks and want to be able to find the most sustainable way through the network. Consequently, Cisco’s sustainability efforts are clearly not purely altruistic, but they are arguably more commercially sustainable because of this.

More (Green) power to Cisco’s elbow as it begins to tackle getting reuse criteria into procurement requirements and starts addressing the big sustainability challenge lying at the network edge. 

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