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Digital Businesses Going Green – How to Innovate Sustainably in the Digital Era

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Digital technologies and innovation are at the core of fighting the climate crisis and building systems that are better for people and the planet. AI is becoming incredibly adept at predicting extreme weather patterns. Smart grid technologies are helping people track and manage their own energy usage. Tik Tok continues to help spur the second-hand shopping movement. Technologies like the AuReus system have figured out how to convert food waste into energy! 

And with nearly every business increasing their digitization efforts in the past year, we’ve seen a lot less physical waste and commuter-related pollution.

But here’s the thing – digital businesses and digital businesses aren’t better for the environment as a whole. In-fact, the result of worldwide digitization is intense energy usage, stressed device-manufacturing systems, and a ton of digital pollution (pollution related to the infrastructure required to support the web).

Uses a lot of energy:

By 2025, the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced 20%

and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s more than most countries’ total emissions bar China, India, and the U.S.

Source

Manufacturing is resource-intensive:

0 lbs
It takes 530 lbs of fossil fuel,
0 lbs
of chemicals, and
0 tonnes
of water

It takes 530 lbs of fossil fuel, 48 lbs of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor.

Source

Requires unethical mining:

Not only is mining for materials like silicon, aluminum, copper, lead, an intrusive process for our planet, but it contributes to increased health problems for workers.

Source

E-waste:

70%

70% of toxic waste

Waste associated with electronics (e-waste) represents 70% of toxic waste in landfills.

Source

Some estimates say if the internet were a country, it would be the seventh largest polluter in the world. So being eco-friendly isn’t just about using less plastic and planting trees, it’s about rethinking our digital footprint as well. And there’s actually some reallllyyyy easy ways to get started.​

What Are The Benefits of Sustainable, Digital Innovation?

Companies that invest in sustainability see improved resilience, better operational performance and, yes – more financial success. 

Venture capital funds have invested $60 billion into more than 1,000 climate tech startups over the past seven years. By 2030, the investment in green-business startups and corporate innovation is projected to grow to $3.4 trillion.

These principles held true in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic as more sustainable businesses tended to outperform their competition. 

And of course, showing your team, your customers, and other stakeholders that you care about the impact of your digital business can get you ahead of the competition and help drop the stigma that digital inherently means more “green.”

How Can Digital Organizations Go Green?

I’m not going to lie to you, integrating sustainability into what we all do takes a lot of work, research, and investment of time and money. But it’s an investment in your security long-term and overall is the ethical thing to do. That being said, I’m a strong believer in progress over perfection — none of us are perfect and striving to be is an impossible task. I’m an environmental science graduate for pete’s sake – and I’m not perfect.

Say it with me - “Progress over perfection. I [insert name or insert organization here] cannot fix or contribute to every single environmental issue.”

When it comes to sustainable action, it’s all about identifying the places where you can make the most impact, and prioritizing improving in that area. Then take small, strategic steps to get better. Finally, repeat and scale.

And since we’re all in different industries, at different digital scales, and have different resources, I’ve compiled some easy, lesser-known ways to reduce your digital footprint to just get you started!

1. Optimise Your Website Load Times

The larger the files and the more data to process, the more energy is used to support your website. Optimising your website for speed is not only better for the environment, but makes your site more inclusive/accessible for those with slower internet speeds AND improves SEO. 

Here are some incredibly easy ways to improve web load times:

  • Use Fonts like Arial or Times New Roman which are available on most devices and can be loaded faster (also if you print, thinner fonts like these use less ink)
  • Use Smaller Images, Run Images Through Image Compressors like https://tinypng.com/ to reduce file size without reducing quality
  • Use jpegs instead of pngs – they are naturally more energy-efficient
  • Reduce Amount of Videos, Embed Videos As Links Rather Than Uploading Them as Files

2. Consider Green Online Hosting

What powers your site is a huge network of wires that connects to millions of large servers that run all day, every day. As mentioned before, the internet takes up a LOT of energy. Plus, data centres require a lot of land-use.

The largest data center in the world is located in Langfang, China and occupies 6.3 million square feet . That’s over 100 football fields, which in theory, could grow a lot of corn.

Green hosting providers either offset your digital pollution by investing in methods that take carbon out of the atmosphere – like planting trees. Even better, some are designed to use power from one or more renewable energy sources.

Here’s a summary of some green hosting services and their associated costs at the cheapest offering:

Quick Tip – Always consider speed when switching hosting. Depending on your site, switching hosts may slow your website down which is not the sacrifice you want to make.

3. Be Mindful With Data Storage

It’s not just our website that has an environmental footprint, it’s all the internet usage we use – from file storing, to Slack conversations, to Zoom meetings. And this data is always stored somewhere, and storage requires a lot of energy.

Some ways to mitigate your data storage energy usage is to:

  • Maintain Your Data By Regularly Organizing, Archiving, and Compressing Your Files & Data (Spring Cleaning doesn’t just have to refer to your house – do it on your computer too!)
  • Use The Cloud to store Data, cloud-based storage requires less power. That might seem counterintuitive because of the sheer size of the server farms that support this type of storage, but they are designed to use energy more EFFICIENTLY

Also as a quick tip – Add The Free Ecosia Chrome Extension to your computer  – now every time you search it will plant trees (and will even tell you how many you’ve planted so far!) It doesn’t change the way you search, just improves impact. Plus, they dedicate 100% of our profits to climate action.

Now Go Tell Everyone About The Progress You’re Making!

As someone who works primarily with impact-driven organizations, one of the biggest hurdles is not only making sustainable change, but communicating it. And I often hear people say “I don’t want to publish what I’m doing yet, because I’m not doing enough.”

But I’m here to say that not saying anything is worse…back to my earlier point – progress over perfection.

It’s okay to tell your customers, your team, your other stakeholders that you’re working on making things better, rather than communicating when it’s all perfect and done. It’s transparent and honest and that’s INCREDIBLY appreciated. After all, none of us are perfect and none of these sustainable transformations are going to happen overnight. 

Small actions you take may seem “small,” but the cliche is true – you can create a huge snowball effect that can spur massive change.

About the Author

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth is a writer and sustainability & culture specialist located in Austin, Texas. She studied Journalism and Environmental Science At The University of Texas at Austin and partly at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She worked as a freelance writer for several years, eventually founding my own LLC where she helped mission-driven organisations understand and connect with their audiences through clear, impactful communications. She now works at Flex International, a global manufacturing partner dedicated to creating products that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Her specialties include writing/editing, research, customer relations, community-building, and data. The views Sarah expresses are her’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Flex.

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