The circular economy: essential to the future of telecoms and the planet

On 06-07-2022 at 09:00
Reading time : 4 minutes

An old saying about sustainability in manufacturing goes “Recycle the present, save the future.” With the world needing to urgently increase recycling and achieve sustainability targets, what can the wholesale telecoms industry do about it?

The circular economy is a system-wide view that is designed to benefit businesses, society, and, of course, the environment. It stands as a contrast to the traditional ‘take, make, waste’ model of manufacturing and production, and a circular economy is regenerative by design. The goal is to increase the lifespan of products and then recycling materials and components that have reached the end of their useful life as materials and components in new goods. It can also include leveraging by-products in the manufacturing process to make new products.

 There’s an urgent need for it: if we continue with linear production techniques, worldwide demand for resources could almost triple by 2050, exhausting Earth’s resources by more than 400%. Research shows that circular economy policies contribute towards tackling the remaining 45% of greenhouse emissions not resolved by transitioning to renewable energy. And it is something that extends to consumer choice: 43% of consumers say they now actively choose the brands they buy from based on environmental values.

Focusing on our carbon footprint

It’s something that Orange Group believes in passionately and we work constantly towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. As part of our Engage 2025 strategic program, Orange has committed to driving circular economy practices throughout our organization and reducing scope 3 emissions. This practice begins with eco-design of our products and services, and continues through collecting, re-using, reconditioning, repairing, recycling and increasing the overall lifespan of products. We want to be a net zero carbon emissions company by 2040.

We are also dedicated to producing sustainable goods and services, and to reducing our consumption and waste levels. We want to work towards making the traditional linear economy a thing of the past, so we’re committed to 100% of Orange products being eco-designed by 2025. Our commitment is further demonstrated with our OSCAR program, which puts the circular economy at the heart of our infrastructure activities. Our goal is to have all our IT infrastructure, networks and data centres operating with more re-used or reconditioned equipment by 2025. 

We have built our own marketplace platform, called “Marketis”, which enables all our group’s entities to buy and resell equipment, by being able to address the internal flows within Orange group, but also the external ones with our partners. Thanks to this platform, we can incentivize our procurement teams to select reconditioned equipment whenever possible, as well as resell unnecessary equipment while it still has value.

Working towards common standards

Orange is actively involved with the GSMA and its fellow mobile operators to create a global ecosystem that fosters these positive green practices. First, we want to define common metrics on the energy efficiency and carbon impact of IT and network equipment. Today, the information available does not allow a reliable and universal comparison. This is an important foundation to rethink tenders and measure impacts as well as track emission reduction trajectories over time.

With regards to circular practices, the GSMA proposes the development of a marketplace open to all operators and manufacturers. We are deeply convinced of the benefits of building this second-hand market at scale.

How we’re transforming our wholesale activities to help the environment

In practical, day-to-day terms, Orange‘s wholesale department works to apply these positive, circular economic principles to everything we do. For some time now we’ve focused on continuous innovation to adapt to our customers’ needs, evident in the development of smart programs like eNGINe, our New Generation International Network, which gives customers an architecture with the extensive footprint of our B2B network plus the bandwidth of our wholesale network. We see it as the next big step forward in wholesale networks that encompasses game-changing automation, APIzation and virtualization. 

Further evidence of our focus on innovation is in our applying the same principles to our network for French enterprises since 2019. At that time we began looking for power and energy savings on our networks, starting with replacing Cisco 4506 switches, a widely-used piece of equipment whose end-of-sale had been announced for October 2020. Our network used hundreds of them. As Pierre-Yves Layec, responsible for Orange international network’s Supply Chain, says, “At the time, we implemented 1,000 customer ports per month, which required purchasing 50 of the 4506 switches per year. With the switch’s end of sales on the horizon, we had to urgently look for an alternative. Looking for refurbished equipment was clearly going to have a major impact.” 

So, following a pilot phase in Q4 2020, the purchasing process was validated and quickly became a normal activity for us. Since then, we have extended the approach out to other equipment providers and types of equipment, whenever and wherever possible. We apply an approach in all our wholesale networks which is based around using equipment for as long as possible, and limiting replacement whenever possible too. To help us do this, we’ve developed a number of complementary activities:

1. Repair as often as possible to extend the life of the product

Equipment naturally reaches end-of-support, that’s just something that happens, but we keep on trying to repair them if we can. To do this, Orange wholesale networks teams work with a specialized equipment repair partner that also operates in the airline industry, an indication of the high quality and reliability of repairs. 

2. Upgrade the minimum required

In lots of cases, it is software upgrades themselves that necessitate decommissioning or upgrading of hardware. We always work to only upgrade or change to the minimum required level.  And to save time, money and reduce our carbon footprint, we carry out upgrades in our own or our partners’ labs rather than directly on routers, and we then ship cards to be installed on the routers. By doing this we can check if cards work correctly after upgrades, as not all cards always support the upgrade. This is the best way to limit unnecessary shipping, field technician travels, and service disruptions.

3. Think circular

If a replacement is required, our teams use our marketplace mentioned above, to offer the equipment for re-use, either externally or within the Orange Group, to extend the product’s life.

4. Refurbished whenever you can

For new equipment, Orange’s wholesale networks now use refurbished kit as much as possible. According to Pierre-Yves Layec, “We do not see any difference today between new and refurbished equipment. Equipment providers and refurbishment specialists are putting in a lot of effort to make second-hand equipment as good as new, even with the outside packaging”. There can in some cases be a big difference in price, with savings sometimes possible of up to 30% with refurbished equipment.

Using refurbished equipment, in addition to helping with green commitments, provides an alternative to new products today, as some new equipment can suffer from extremely long delivery times through a mix of components shortage and high demand.

That said, there are times, for example for very specific that you can’t find a piece of equipment on the refurbished market. Therefore, adaptation is required, as has happened recently with some 48-port line cards. As they are difficult to source, we have replaced them with 24-port cards wherever possible, because 24-port cards are more widely available on the refurbished market. We use 24-port cards on servers where we expect lower traffic growth, which enables us to wait until the time comes when it is necessary to fully replace the server.

5. Dispose of and recycle according to highest environmental standards

When a piece of equipment reaches end of life and cannot be refurbished and sold, we ensure that it is recycled properly. To do this we work with an appropriately accredited and ISO-certified asset disposal partner who ensures the equipment is disposed of correctly, and also that any and all parts that can be recycled are.

The circular economy is the future for telecoms 

None of this is about paying lip service to the issue or doing what you feel you need to for PR purposes: there is an absolutely urgent need for more circular economy in our industry and the wider world. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), under a “business as usual” linear scenario, by 2030 the resource capacity of two earths will be required to keep up with our one earth’s natural resource consumption. The WEF also reports that the economic benefit of material savings of transforming to a circular economy industrial system is $1 trillion. Circular economics approaches and techniques can be our way forward.

With that in mind, it is essential to extend your circular economy thinking to the partners you work with in your ecosystem. If you are working hard to make your own company as green and sustainable as possible, the partners and suppliers you work with should follow the same path. It’s something that Orange believes in passionately and one of the things that makes us the perfect partner to help you achieve your own CSR and ESG objectives and keep doing the right thing.


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