As we career at break-neck speed towards the tail end of 2019, no one can have failed to sit up and take notice of the rapidly changing world around us. From the raging fires and melting ice-caps across the Arctic to the burning Amazonian landscape to the global extreme weather events, to the plastics emergency … there’s no shortage of alarming news. As if that’s not enough to keep even the hardest of hearts awake at night, recent research has shown us that if the IT industry continues along the same road, come 2025 it will be accountable for a colossal 20% of the global electricity demand, and over 5% of carbon emissions. The bottom line? If you’re not already, it’s time to get serious about sustainability.
Digitalisation – the environmental impact
While many of us are only too familiar with the environmental issues facing us, there are just as many that aren’t quite so familiar with the impact of digitalisation. That 2am click-fest through our Insta feed, the trawl through our go-to news site when the kids are in the bath, and those likes (or dislikes) we’re dolling out when we take a coffee break … every one of these clicks we make impacts the environment around us.
Not convinced? Let’s take a quick run through some facts and figures.
Number one on the list, datacentres. These vast, hidden-from-site infrastructures – and one of the fastest-growing sectors of our global economy – are also one of the fastest-growing users of our world’s energy. Around 17% of technology’s carbon footprint is down to datacentres. The undeniable fact that they’re running on full capacity 24/7/365, keeping us connected every second of every day, means they also tend to fritter away around 90% of the energy they’re eating up. One datacentre alone can devour more power than a medium-sized town.
“…datacentre efficiency and sustainability is a universal challenge that transcends companies, geographies, and workloads – and there’s no simple solution.”
But it’s not just these monolithic digital cathedrals consuming our precious resources. The ever-increasing number of computers, smartphones, and digital devices that are bringing real and lasting benefits to lives, communities, countries, and the world at large, also demand a lot of energy – not just in terms of their manufacture, but to dispose of as well. It’s called e-waste, and the facts are eye-opening. 50 million tonnes (and rising) of e-waste produced each year, the equivalent of 125,000 jumbo jets according to the WEF. This isn’t helped by the fact that only 20% of global e-waste is recycled (the rest of it tends to get dumped in landfill).
given that we’re constantly upgrading, replacing or adding to what we’ve already got, it’s fair to assume that Houston, we have a problem.
What being a sustainable enterprise looks like
Despite the facts and figures we’ve touched on here, it’s not all doom and gloom. We can all play a part when it comes to how we do business, focusing on optimum sustainability to drive not just our own growth, but that of the world around us.
Of course, being sustainable means different things to different businesses. Some, such as the datacentre giants, will see their focus on how to power these mammoth energy-eaters more efficiently. WindData, for example, is utilising wind farms to power its datacentres, while Fujitsu currently oversees one of the world’s first near-zero emissions datacentres – located in Germany and inside, wait for it, a wind turbine. Apple, device-producer on a mammoth scale, has taken sustainability right to the beating heart of its operations and as far as datacentres go, is looking to solar energy to drive efficiencies. They’ve already reduced the average total power consumed by their product lines by over 50% since 2008, meaning customers are happy (and paying less on their electricity bills) and cut their carbon emissions by over 350,000Mt. And Google are powering every one of their global data centres and corporate offices using 100% renewable energies.
“As our modern world grows increasingly dependent on information and communication technologies, so our responsibility to deliver and use these in sustainable ways has never been more important,”
John Seglias, CIO at DEFRA
Beyond datacentres and the brand giants, however, there are many examples of planet-loving enterprise joining the digital sustainability race for maximum efficiency and minimal environmental damage:
- Enevo, a Finnish company that manufactures“smart” waste disposal, using IoT technology to enable waste companies to schedule pickups when their bins are full (rather than at set times) and making collection of waste more efficient, reducing the time and number of waste collection vehicles on our road and reducing fuel consumption and emissions.
- Nike has developed a tool that allows them to assess both the environmental and financial impact of any changes it makes to its supply chain (such as using different materials or on-boarding new sources). The tool gives Nike total visibility – and hence control – of its impact on the environment, allowing them to continually look at and implement strategies that work towards more sustainable solutions.
- Brightstar provides wireless digital solutions and devices to a global business audience and boasts one of the largest sustainability initiatives in the world. Already having resold over 15 million used digital devices since 2009, their sustainability program allows them to recover a colossal amount of e-waste each year – more than 22Mt of printed circuit boards, 42Mt of screens and 35Mt of batteries – and that’s just to start with.
How technology is helping sustainability
Being a business in the 21st century means being a digital business. We can’t avoid it, so what can we do to ensure that our plans for growth include plans for digital sustainability? After all, procuring the digital kit that will allow us to do business across a veritable banquet of digital channels is very much part of most business strategies to enable our successful and on-going digital transformation. The key is how to do this sustainably, whilst at the same time, utilising technology to drive sustainability enterprise-wide.
The Internet of Things
We’ve got a big focus on IoT right now, and for good reason – there’s some serious innovations catching our eye, and the eyes of the world at large, not least because of the huge benefits it brings to business, consumers and the environment (we recently wrote about a few mind-blowing IoT initiatives).
The growing availability of IoT platforms, and the sheer affordability of the technology that once seemed out of reach means that business is taking a serious second look at IoT to support their sustainability efforts. Ready to deliver significant time and cost savings to those that are ready to transform. One such example? Lighting. It’s simple, but it’s practically revolutionary – by implementing internet connectivity to the lighting systems across an organisation’s buildings, energy use is optimised, spending is reduced and emissions are cut. IoT sensors that can monitor temperature and natural light levels mean that systems know when a room is empty and doesn’t need light, or whether or not the natural light on a given day, hour or minute can provide enough light for staff to work effectively – and power accordingly. What’s more, smart LED lights use around 50% less electricity than traditional lightbulbs and can last up to eight times longer. Add IoT intelligence to office LED lighting and there could be a potential 99% cost-saving on lighting across your business.
“Smart grids and buildings can potentially provide a 20 per cent reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030, with over $11 trillion in new economic benefits.”
The savings potential that IoT brings to every enterprise is huge, and persuasive. Already, a large number of logistics businesses use IoT to manage delivery routes, slashing vastly reducing fuel consumption. Manufacturing companies are using IoT to fine-tune processes that will use less energy and create less waste. And all kinds of businesses are using IoT to underpin operations, maximising efficiencies around heating, lighting, power supplies and water provision to name just a few. The long and short? The Internet of Things is on the cusp of putting sustainability at the heart of every successful enterprise. Vodafone’s 2018 IoT study told us that 95% of businesses surveyed reported seeing benefits from the use of IoT technology, with nearly three-quarters of these saying their “digital transformation would be impossible without it”.
We’ve all heard of 3D printing, but for some reason, it’s not (yet) the go-to technology when we think about digital transformation and environmental sustainability. But when it comes to enterprise and manufacturing, this one’s going to be big. Last year the global additive manufacturing market (that’s 3D printing to you and I) was reported to have generated over $9bn in revenues. By next year, we could see that figure reach nearly $14bn. If you’re a manufacturer, chances are you’re already looking at where 3D printing is going to fit into your digital transformation to bring sustainable products and new business opportunities – and here’s why:
- 3D printing uses less material than traditional manufacturing methods, using only what it needs, with little or no waste.
- 3D-printed products can weigh up to 50% less than those produced using traditional methods, meaning less energy needed to transport. But hang on – one day, the very vehicles transporting products could themselves be
- 3D printed, meaning more agile, lightweight vehicles that require less energy to run.
- 3D-printed objects are usually made of thermoplastic. OK, it’s not the greenest of materials, but it can often be recycled. What’s more, there are already products on the market that recycle these thermoplastics for use in 3D printers.
- The ability to print from anywhere. In theory, this means reducing the need for transporting goods manufactured often very long distances away. The result? Up to 5% fewer emissions from both transport and handling processes.
- These are just the tip of the 3D printing iceberg, but the process still has some way to go to become as green and as sustainable as we need it to be. The process does, for example, use more energy than traditional manufacturing methods, and we need to see biodegradable 3D printing materials to meet our sustainability goals, but it just might become the sustainability-driver that the manufacturing industry is looking for. We’ll be watching, so check back for updates.
Surprised? Don’t be. Blockchain technology, once upon a time known only for its Bitcoin and darknet associations, is today redefining sustainability strategies in ways that no one saw coming. The technology behind the name – distributed ledger technology – is delivering the potential for major new innovations to business, the public sector, healthcare and communities around the world – and we’ve only just got started. And the driver? Transparency.
Not an obvious must-have for corporate sustainability, the transparency provided across processes powered by the blockchain ecosystem means that all transactions and every bit of data is publically available. So what? Surely that’s not a good thing, and what’s it got to do with sustainability anyway? Bear with us … Consider this – if everyone can see what my business is doing, then I’m going to do whatever I can to ensure that each action my business takes is above board, efficient, cost-effective and risk-minimised. Still need convincing? Then let’s outline what that might look like in practice.
The traditional and often very wasteful and inefficient supply chain processes and infrastructures have the very real potential to be swept away by blockchain technology. Transparent tracking of labour and materials, for example, will ensure that producers – often at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to supply chains – will receive what they’re entitled to.
One real-world example of this in action is the Starbucks Bean-to-Cup program. The initiative uses blockchain to track their coffee shipments from across the globe, providing “digital, real-time traceability” to its supply chains. The program (which supports coffee farmers in Costa Rica, Colombia and Rwanda) enables workers to log and share labour data on the common ledger (blockchain tech), ensuring that their hard work is properly rewarded – with the added benefit of providing these growers with information such as where their beans end up. Starbucks also tie all this data in with its mobile app, providing customers with details around where their coffee is sourced and roasted, with far-reaching global and local, sustainability-related consequences.
Blockchain is also making big strides when it comes to transparency around philanthropy. Most of us want to first trust a charity before donating to it, but few of us do, according to last years Give.org survey. There’s no shortage of news stories that tell us financial investments in developing areas of the world are often mismanaged, misdirected and misspent, with the result that we’re reluctant to hand over our money to the enterprises that most need and deserve it. However, through the use of blockchain, investments can now be effectively tracked, ensuring they reach their intended destination and are efficiently utilised when they get there.
Blockchain initiative, BitGive, for example, allows donors and the public to keep track of transactions in real time. The result – trust is boosted, donations increase, and money is properly managed and distributed. We don’t see it yet, but there’s little doubt that over time, blockchain will be the surprise disruptor and sustainability-driver extraordinaire.
The ‘circular economy’
We all know about built-in obsolescence, but what about the matter of waste during both the manufacturing and consumption processes? It’s time to get familiar with the ‘circular economy’.
A circular economy is the sustainable alternative to the old-style, not-particularly-sustainable linear process of ‘make, use and dispose’. In the circular economy model, products are used for as long as possible, deriving maximum value from them while they’re in use – then at the end of their natural lives, they’re recovered to reuse. This approach reduces waste and drives greater resource productivity – but the benefits don’t stop there. When businesses are on board, there’s the opportunity to bolster a more competitive economy, and of course, reduce the impact of productivity. Close collaboration with partners and suppliers across the entire supply and value chains is critical to success – and everyone needs to be involved, and putting the processes in place that support a circular economy won’t happen overnight, But long-term? The benefits far outweigh those of the traditional ways.
One innovator fully on board with the circular economy model is HYLA Mobile, collaborating with some of the world’s leading digital device manufacturers and service providers to recover and reuse mobile devices and their components. More than 50 million devices have already been repurposed – netting a whopping $4bn for their owners, and preventing over 6,000 tons of e-waste heading for landfill. Result! You can learn more about the circular economy here.
Even though many businesses still view sustainability as a costly endeavour (initial costs to alter product development processes, for example, can be significant) just as many are ready to embrace digital sustainability and the long-term success it provides – not only for their business but for the economy as a whole.
The above technologies are great examples of where enterprise is looking to drive sustainability and play its part in a cleaner, greener world. Whether it’s looking at where blockchain could fit into your digital transformation, or 3D printing into your manufacturing processes, or the IoT in your operational strategy, understanding how your business delivers – or removes – value to society and the wider world means focused analysis on what you do, how you do it, what the outcomes are, and what you’re going to do about it. Focusing on sustainability through digital transformation drives new economic opportunities, helping identify new ways of doing things, and new competitive advantages – and they’ll also allow you to deliver greater efficiencies, reduced costs and a longer and more productive relationship with your customers – and the planet.