When it comes to sustainability, technology can be a double-edged sword. It is a key enabler for organizations to deliver on their sustainability goals. Yet, at the same time, with the wrong approach, it can have significant negative environmental and social impacts.
How can organizations address this paradox, especially as the digitization of businesses and society rapidly accelerates?
What is sustainable IT?
Sustainable IT is about building solutions internal to the organization the right way. It aims to minimize the climate and biodiversity impacts of the manufacturing, use, management, and disposal of technology by reducing carbon emissions and the consumption of energy, water and raw materials. Increasingly, it also includes all environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects for the organization, from advancing a green technology agenda to building in social responsibility (e.g., ensuring solutions are modern slavery-free) to providing robust corporate governance (e.g., transparent disclosure of infrastructure impacts).
The origins of sustainable IT can be traced back to 1987 when the UN Brundtland Commission report called for “global coordinated political action and responsibility” to address rising carbon emissions and climate change. This triggered a series of questions for leaders to do more, such as: What more can countries do to reduce waste? Are our solutions too energy-intensive? Can we have fewer data centers? The focus then was on internal operations to increase efficiency.
Why is sustainable IT so important?
We have come a long way since the Brundtland Commission Report in 1987. When you begin to peel back the layers, it’s clear that the technology sector is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions. Data centers, for instance, contribute 3% of the world’s global emissions and account for 1-2% of the world’s electricity consumption. The industry also depends heavily on mineral extraction for phones and laptops, such as tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold, and copper, which are running out fast. Tackling the emissions from mineral production is an added challenge.
By 2050, data centers potentially will account for 14% of global emissions — not because of population growth but due to the growth of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and innovation, which require much bigger computing power and faster software.
In many ways, the more we innovate, the more resources we need from the Earth. At the same time, it is estimated that we throw away over 50 million tons of electronic waste a year, most of which isn’t recycled. That’s the equivalent of enough Eiffel Towers to fill New York’s Manhattan.
There’s a right and better way — one where we need to move:
From: Extract, take, make and throw away.
To: Extract, take, make and bring back.
There’s also an increasing need to factor in the sustainable and responsible development of minerals. For instance, extracting resources such as cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is rife with issues around child labor, forced labor and poor worker conditions.
How can organizations advance toward a more sustainable digital world?
Undoubtedly, technology is a force of change — from enabling the energy transition and advancing healthcare to building a more equitable world and so much more. It is becoming increasingly incumbent upon organizations to ensure the responsible and environmentally conscious use of technology in their operations and their partnerships. Below, I share seven actionable strategies organizations can adopt to address the environmental impacts of technology:
- Embrace circularity – Consider the strategy of waste hierarchy to achieve a circular economy. This waste management strategy aims to ensure that all options are considered before disposal, starting with prevention, preparing for reuse, recycling and recovery.
- Consider sustainable IT as core to your overall strategy – Refine your business strategy to include a clear climate action strategy and the enabling cultural change management, governance, technology, training and process improvements. For instance, prioritize energy management programs, data center consolidation and cloud adoption to reduce emissions.
- Ensure a responsible supply chain – Establish and enforce high standards and due diligence around environmental standards and human rights in your supply chain. Include sustainability criteria in contracts and hold your suppliers to high standards.
- Focus on capacity building and development – Educate and train your employees about sustainable IT so they have the right tools and skillsets and, at the same time, evolve your processes and systems to ensure the organization is working toward a shared vision of sustainability.
- Pursue sustainable innovation – Nurture a collaborative culture and environment to accelerate innovations for sustainability. The Sustainability Exploration and Environmental Data Science (SEEDS) program is one such example. An innovative research program in which CGI is partnering with the UN and academia, SEEDS focuses on harnessing the power of technology, research, and innovation to create positive environmental and social change and foster access to technological sustainability solutions. Within this, there’s a focus on reducing emissions and waste from data centers, developing green software and using technology to monitor our land, water, Earth and biodiversity.
- Develop robust governance – This includes the necessary leadership and forums to ensure sustainability is high on everyone’s agenda and considered in the context of broader business and technology strategies.
- Collaborate to succeed – Sustainability is a team sport. Understand that your organization is part of a much larger ecosystem and must collaborate with partners and competitors to meet challenges and pressures collectively.
Technology is a core enabler of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and crucial to their progress. Even countries trying to address zero hunger need technology for smart agriculture to feed societies, and of course, technology is critical to driving energy efficiency and decarbonization.
At CGI, we not only pursue high standards and due diligence for our supply chain, we focus on net-zero and playing our part regarding macro challenges. We also help our clients ensure their supply chains are sustainable. Please reach out to me to continue this conversation.