When you think of solutions to the global climate crisis, IT probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
But it’s a lack of awareness, and in some cases ignorance, of the impact of IT that’s holding us back as an industry from creating positive change at scale.
In the first article of this sustainability series, we will explore IT’s true (and growing) impact on the environment and how the sector can put people, the planet and prosperity first.
So, what’s the problem?
Technology has transformed life and work beyond recognition. And the pace of digital disruption is only getting faster, unlocking new opportunities to become smarter with how we do things.
But for all its benefits, technology carries huge environmental consequences if not used and disposed of correctly. And the current data doesn’t look good.
Global e-waste is growing each year at a staggering rate. According to the United Nations, the world discarded a record 53.6 million tons of e-waste in 2019, of which only 17 percent was recycled through correct channels. By 2030, it’s predicted this will increase by as much as 39 percent to over 74 million tons a year.
And where technology has environmental consequences, it’s also likely to negatively impact people too, often thousands of miles away.
The solution to this serious and growing problem is to move towards a circular economy model, in contrast to the 'take-make-waste' linear model we’ve all been used to.
The world discarded a record 53.6m tons of e-waste in 2019
The circular economy decouples growth from the consumption of finite resources, in this case IT hardware, and designs out the creation of waste and pollution by keeping products and materials in use through refurbishment, reuse and recycling.
Another pressing problem and an area where technology is contributing to global warming is greenhouse gas emissions, through data transfer and storage as cloud computing grows, demanding huge energy resources.
While a recent paper published in Science dispelled some myths around the energy demands of data centres (which are now believed to account for 1 percent of global energy use), the rise of data-ravenous AI and there being a limit on just how efficient we can make the process, things may take a turn for the worse without further intervention.
Sustainability at what cost?
There is a misconception that to be sustainable means an organisation must “cut back” and as a result, be less successful.
Conversely, doing nothing will end up costing organisations more. We can expect stricter environment legislation from governments on corporations in line with national and international emission targets, penalising those who don’t comply.
Sustainability has also become a vital consideration in the procurement process, with those failing to keep up being left behind. Investors and lenders are becoming more responsible in their decisions too, as per the Climate Action 100+ initiative, putting future funding at risk. An organisation’s reputation among customers and partners now hinges on its eco-credentials, too.
Appetite for change is growing
The IT industry has an important role to play in reversing climate change and bringing
But as with any change, there are leaders and followers. in their partners, supply chains and customers too.
Both players large and small are contributing to this global effort to make IT greener. In the Big Tech space, only recently did the likes of Apple, Salesforce and Uber call for mandatory climate disclosures to be introduced by government. This is highly unusual for an industry that evolves at a faster rate than legislation can be drawn up…or understood by legislators.
We are now seeing real efforts from the manufacturers introducing the use of recycled materials into their manufacturing processes, the reduction of packaging and the concentration of the sustainable packaging materials.
The second angle is the energy usage that the equipment uses. This is something that the vendors are also working hard to reduce the energy consumption of the products and also the services that they offer. Their continued efforts in this area will not only support the ongoing battle of climate change but will also start to steer the technology and solutions that organisations adopt.
Embedding sustainability into the culture
Real change will come when sustainability is put at the heart of an organisation, informing everything it does to maximise positive impact and minimise negative impact.
Part of this process is to gain a diverse opinion on what goals are important to your workforce and stakeholders.
An important step in Softcat’s sustainability journey so far has been becoming a signatory of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the first FTSE 250 company to be awarded 5-star status.
This ambitious universal agenda is one that more organisations in the IT space need to back. The 17 Sustainable Development goals may not all be relevant to the work we do, but with the freedom to choose, you can define your own position and decide your ultimate goals as an organisation to work towards.
Redefining what “success” is
At Softcat, we’re incredibly proud to be setting the standard among IT resellers by embedding sustainability into our culture, creating a more efficient and reduced carbon organisation.
Our progress in recent years is proof that sustainability doesn’t have to come at the expense of success. Instead, our definition of what success looks like needs to change; success must incorporate sustainability as part of measurement and reporting, including how it benefits the planet, people and our prosperity.
Through a range of innovative initiatives and gaining total employee buy-in, we’ve been able to reduce our organisation’s Co2 emissions by 37 percent over the past five years, while growing revenue (+162%) and expanding our workforce (+49%).
And this is only the beginning. In the pipeline, we have plans for a full supply chain review including all vendors, suppliers and partners; to lead environmental workshops, prioritise reduced carbon logistics options, eliminate single-use plastics and launch our own sustainability awards to encourage and reward best practice in the industry.
We also plan to introduce a sustainability scoring system for the IT solutions and services we offer customers to boost awareness and promote positive choices among our communities.
It’s clear the status quo is changing; are you ready?
It’s now time for everyone – every individual, organisation and government to take collective action. Only then will we be able to meet science-backed climate targets.