Progress has often come at a cost to the planet and digital technology is no exception. Digital pollution is the unwanted consequence of building and delivering digital infrastructure, which has accelerated over the past 18 months due to remote working on such a grand scale.
On the face of it, the transition to digital, along with the shift to hybrid working, can improve an organisation’s environmental impact through the reduction of business travel and commuting and lower energy usage within the office. A recent study found that by reducing commuting miles and consolidating real estate through sustainable IT practices, remote work could help reduce annual CO2 emissions by 214 million tonnes.
However, it is far from a carbon-neutral situation, and it is only when you apply sustainability principles to the entire business, that you gain a full understanding of how technology choices contribute, often unintentionally, to digital pollution.
As a technology business, we decided it was time to measure the damage the digital revolution is having upon our planet and society thus far, while also setting a benchmark for future progress. To do this, we polled 500 IT leaders in large UK businesses with 250 or more employees and I would like to share some of the headline results with you.
42% of IT leaders are currently tracking the environmental impact of their employees working remotely, such as the electricity tariff they use
Digital progress has allowed us to consider a hybrid future, but remote work on such a grand scale is bringing with it unanticipated consequences for the planet. The volume of video calls and streaming, have increased significantly. A single internet request represents 7g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), for example, and sending or receiving an email emits 4g of CO2e.
Organisations need to continually assess the impact of staff working at home, and balance this with the environmental cost of maintaining rarely used office space.
62% of IT leaders believe their organisations are advanced on their ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) journeys
Additionally, 27% of these businesses are also helping their clients to become more sustainable, as part of their business models. Our survey found that just 11% of IT leaders say their businesses are in the early stages of their ESG journey.
Ultimately, how businesses score on their ESG policies and practices will help to minimise digital pollution, holding them more accountable and increasing pressure to be sustainable. ESG is rapidly evolving, and although initially a focus for investors, today it is on the radar of employees, regulators and everyone involved in the business ecosystem.
Of the organisations that have started their ESG journeys, 88% say the IT team supports the business with their ESG reporting and provides input, which is crucially important in exposing digital pollution.
37% of IT leaders consider the environmental impact of the digital solutions they provide to their customers “to a large extent”
However, 54% do so to “some extent” and it’s only considered in some departments across their business, leaving much scope for improvement.
IT leaders are responsible for the selection and management of the technology devices and applications their company and workforce use, which places them in a strong position to make sustainable choices. Our survey finds that when considering a purchase, just 19% of IT leaders consider whether it will support their environment goals currently, with price (56%) and “functionality and performance” (52%) emerging as the top two priorities.
End-of-life practices for products and services, and the associated data, is just as important when it comes to minimising a company’s digital pollution. It is therefore pleasing that 78% of enterprises report always or often disposing of their IT solutions in a sustainable way.
Only 15% of responding organisations are using public cloud exclusively
Not all cloud technologies are equal, and a sustainable cloud journey begins with the selection of a carbon-thoughtful provider. Our study also finds that over two fifths of respondents (44%) say their organisation accesses and manages data and applications using a hybrid cloud model, while 27% are still reliant on a private cloud.
Of those who use hybrid cloud or public cloud, on average, 49% of the data and applications are running within public clouds provided by the hyperscale players such as Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google. This is the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly way of hosting and managing IT infrastructure, since large technology companies have led the charge to powering their data centres with renewable energy.
92% of organisations provide training in sustainability practices and processes
Educating all employees in digital pollution will become an important component of hybrid work. Employees are very aware of the climate crisis and are showing increasing preference for working for organisations that support their own green credentials. In recent years there has been a notable increase in demand for purpose-led jobs and roles at sustainable businesses, and increasingly, taking steps to reduce carbon footprint will become an important element of attracting and retaining talent.
Digital pollution in 2022
As the move towards hybrid work continues, greener IT choices will result in an overall greener businesses. IT leaders must strike a careful balance between selecting technology that drives productivity and growth, supporting the employee experience, while helping to minimise their organisation’s carbon footprint.
Our research shows that while there is some positive action taking place, there is much room for improvement.
2022 needs to be a year of action. With climate change firmly on the agenda following COP26, businesses have an important role to play in establishing green IT practices as the norm, rather than the outlier.