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How to make tech more sustainable: Five practical ways to make it happen

Sustainability is finally on the boardroom agenda, but many organizations are still not taking proactive action. Professionals must make a step change now.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Image: Getty Images

If you are standing, as I was recently, amidst the lava fields of Iceland as part of a visit to one of the largest geothermal power plants in the world, it's easy to believe that making tech more sustainable is a challenge that's well on the way to being solved.

From hydroelectric and geothermal power to air-cooled data centers and onto newly laid subsea cabling that enables the country's sustainable computing resources to be tapped by enterprises across Europe, Iceland's technology ecosystem points the way to a more sustainable future.

But the reality is that getting people to see the potential for sustainability has been a far from straightforward journey -- and that's as much to do with the attitude of people using technology as it is with the challenges of creating greener IT.

On the trip I met Gisli Kr., chief commercial officer with data center specialist atNorth, who has focused on producing sustainable technology in Iceland since 2009, which was a time when most people around the globe rarely thought about the source of their computing power.

Also: This giant geothermal plant is surrounded by lava. It could help solve tech's energy problem

Back then people didn't really relate their Google search to anything, he says: "It was just a computer running on a battery. They didn't put into perspective that there was a data center behind all the activity that starts working when you start browsing."

Gisli Kr. says one of the first things atNorth did was to quantify web searches in terms of carbon footprint. The company also looked at popular videos that were being viewed online and presented how much carbon was being output. 

While it might have been a creative idea, it wasn't met with much enthusiasm. "We were considered activists at the time," he says. 

"In fact, we were a bit challenged when it came to our go-to-market strategy and our marketing message. Back in those days, nobody would argue with you that sustainability matters. Everybody would say 'yes, obviously sustainability matters' -- but nobody would take action."

More than a decade later, there's been a noticeable shift in perception. 

But not everyone today has access to a geothermal power station in a lava field or hydroelectric power, of which Iceland also has plenty. And the issues with the sustainability of our tech usage go way beyond the source of the electricity that powers it.

While Gisli Kr. says sustainability is now a big topic of conversation in boardrooms, other evidence suggests far too many executives are still too slow to turn concern for the environment into affirmative action.

Also: Business travel, energy consumption in the spotlight as sustainability jumps up the agenda

Recruiter Nash Squared said in its annual digital leadership report released late last year that it expected sustainability to be playing a greater role in decision-making processes.

However, under a quarter (23%) of digital leaders think sustainability has a negligible or no part to play in the business.

What's more, just 22% of digital leaders are using technology to measure their organization's carbon footprint to any great extent.

While those results make for depressing reading, Nash Squared CEO Bev White says it's also important to focus on positive trends. 

As tech rose to the challenge of keeping people working during lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, so the use of videoconferencing and cloud-based collaboration technology rose exponentially. All evidence points to that shift to video -- and maybe even VR-based meetings one day -- being a permanent fixture of post-pandemic working styles.

Also: Accidental teleports and virtual high-fives: What I've learned about VR meetings

While running these digital services still requires a significant chunk of power, the shift means less people are flying around the world for meetings.

That's a positive step in the right direction, but White says tech decision makers and their executive peers need to do more: "Research says the tech industry now has as high an impact in terms of carbon as airline travel."

Estimates suggest the IT industry accounts for about 3% of global carbon emissions. The most significant contributors of greenhouse gases in the IT sector are data centers (45%). 

Despite these concerns, sustainability has historically neither been a revenue-generating exercise nor a cost-containment one. It is an activity that's often led by voluntary or, in some cases, mandatory disclosure requirements as a result of government or corporate policies. 

However, change is in the air. Consultant McKinsey found that 83% of C-suite leaders expect environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs to contribute more to shareholder value in 2025 than they do today. 

Given the need to integrate sustainability into core business operations and customer propositions, Nash Squared suggests business leaders must adopt a dual lens on sustainability: first, designing and implementing sustainability tools; and secondly, anchoring sustainability into company values, products, and services.

With these requirements in mind, Nash Squared's White suggests five tactics for creating a proactive approach to sustainability:

  1. Take responsibility for change – "We need to be thinking about our carbon footprint as business leaders now," says White, with her firm's research reporting that only a quarter of organizations have a head of sustainability. 
  2. Keep pushing air travel down – "Technologists have done a huge amount to limit the amount of air travel people are having to make. So, how about putting in some tools to continue monitoring that shift?"
  3. Track technology use – "As we begin to use more and more IoT-connected devices, there are plenty of tools available to monitor the business use of digital assets, so that your organizations can be much more efficient and produce far less waste."
  4. Extend technology life cycles – "Use your tools for longer. Don't be so quick to throw away the mobile phone, desktop, or laptop -- extend the life because they have more life in them than you think, and without causing any impact on productivity."
  5. Consider safe disposal – "How is the product that you're recycling going to be handled? There's lots of things small things that we can do to reduce our organization's carbon footprint."
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