Climate Crises and Building a Sustainable Digital Industry

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As highlighted by last Friday’s global Climate Strike, the world is increasingly aware that we stand on the edge of an imminent climate and ecological crisis. It was heartening to see that, around the world, so many people took to the streets to call on government and business to make serious changes.

For those businesses who are committed to reducing their carbon footprint, it might be tempting to think that we’re doing all we can (and should) to ‘do out bit’ on climate change. We know we need to turn off the lights in the office before we leave at night, we buy lower energy-use appliances and reduce or re-use office products. It’s something that often goes hand in hand with startup culture.

What many don’t realise however, is that the data centres we rely on to access and store information, a central tenet of any business, have an enormous carbon footprint. In fact, some sources suggest that by 2020, data centres will have a bigger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry. Certainly, internet usage contributes to a staggering 10% of the world’s electricity consumption. The digital age gave rise to a digital industry, and we’re as responsible as any of the more traditional industries for the impact of business on the planet.

It’s easy to ignore the environmental impact of digital emissions. After all, our devices aren’t attached to smoke-bellowing chimneys. However, for those businesses who want to truly embrace an ethical approach to sustainability, here are a few simple steps to follow:

Lead by example

Everyone in a business, particularly those individuals in leadership positions, has a responsibility to encourage sustainability within their organisation. From creating sustainable working policies and sharing best practice documents, to maintaining regular communication that establishes new sustainability efforts, business leaders can inspire a culture of environmentally friendly behaviour in staff.

However, managers should also consider introducing schemes which incentivise sustainable behaviours. through reward opportunities. Reward opportunities - from cycling to work to carpooling – are simple and effective ways to encourage the reduction of work-related emissions. Still not enough? For those who are keen on making an impactful environmental change, you may want to consider matching leave for anyone who wants to take time off work in order to support the climate strikes being held across the world this month. If you really can’t sacrifice the time off to join them, help them to make a placard!

On the digital side, consider the environmental impact of your design choices. Auto-playing videos on a web page use a lot of energy, as does storing needless information on your servers.

Strive for neutrality

It is paramount that all organisations measure their environmental impact in order to plan out how it can be minimised. This includes measuring as many of your carbon emissions as possible (and not just the ones you’re legally required to measure). For digital businesses, as well as the ‘standard’ switching to renewable energy suppliers, and encouraging employees to use public transport when possible, why not make use of technology to minimise traditional issues? International business trips by plane? Sometimes face to face is the only way, but if not essential, jump on Zoom or Google Hangouts instead (far less impactful).

More widely, sustainable businesses must strive for carbon neutrality - by both minimising unsustainable activities and investing in offsetting any carbon emissions produced. Carbon offsetting programmes are an invaluable way of giving back to the world in a way that best helps those most affected by the negative effects of climate change.

Choose your partners carefully

Building a digital business isn’t just about generating as much profit as possible. If your company is truly dedicated to ethical considerations such as sustainability, then outlining guidelines and requirements for organisational partners is key.

From doing due diligence on suppliers and giving preference to sustainable businesses, to  disclosing any climate conflicts from your portfolio, it is crucial for your business to be honest and robust when developing a sustainable business model. Furthermore, you can also help existing clients to minimise their environmental impact by recommending sustainable practices, products and services. Reducing environmental impact is a joint responsibility of both your business and its business partners/clients.

Make a bold statement

Achieving an industry-wide culture change is challenging to achieve. But it’s only by raising awareness of the environmental damage that digital businesses risk causing, that any change will be enacted. We should use our platforms and networks to discuss opportunities to improve sustainability. Data centres that guzzle energy are very much the tip of the iceberg in an industry we can all look to improve.

Some businesses may even wish to take it a step further and publicly declare a climate and ecological emergency. By doing this, you can clearly highlight the importance of improving sustainability within your sector, as well as outline exactly how that can be achieved.