Many organisations are feeling the pressure and urgency to “do something” to respond to the challenges of sustainability and climate change. But while we know there’s a gulf between where we are and where we should be – what should organisations actually do about it? In this article we present four areas in which new ways of thinking are needed and explore how changes to work and IT can help to help bridge the sustainability gap.
Our challenge when addressing climate change from an organisational perspective is that we need a significant change in behaviours at every level and across every function. We can actively encourage and support more sustainable behaviours, but if we genuinely want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 (or ideally 2030) then strategy, policy and process are going to need to change, not least in the area of Information Technology. IT is not just a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a key enabler to new ways of working that can reduce our impact on the planet.
To be clear, what’s needed isn’t just a change by procurement to a more sustainable energy supplier. It also isn’t just about engaging a third party to offset our emissions or encouraging individual employees to behave more sustainably. The scale of the problem requires a strategic rethink, from every sector, every organisation and every function. In the sections below we examine four key topics which have the potential to provide a more wholistic view of the issues and options.
Lifecycle and Disposal
Let’s start with our attitude to “goods” in general and end user computing devices specifically. Traditionally our attitude has been to buy the best we can afford, use them until they become obsolete (typically 3 – 4 years) then dispose of them. Until recently we haven’t been under pressure to select devices which source their raw materials ethically or suppliers who run their manufacturing and distribution sustainably. While our disposal may have been compliant with waste regulations it has been some distance from any concept of a circular economy.
From a sustainability perspective we need to genuinely evaluate our suppliers environmental and ethical standards as key selection criteria. Choosing the right device in the first place is critical in terms of its energy, maintenance and options for upgrades. We also need to consider how to extend the lifecycle of the devices, spreading the “embodied” missions from manufacturing and distribution over as many years as possible.
As devices cease to be fit for their original purpose they can be extended by using a different, lighter operating system, by moving services to the cloud or by repurposing and redeploying the device, for example into education.
Attitude to Energy
It’s very easy for most of us to remain detached from our energy consumption and it’s environmental impact. We flick a switch, adjust a thermostat or power on a device and the power we need is simply there. We refer to this supply as a “utility” something we just use.
But of course our relationship with power is more complex. Even if we sign with a sustainable energy provider, our supply from the grid comes from many sources. No energy supplier can operate with zero impact on the environment, it’s just that some are much less impactful than others.
What’s needed is a rethink about energy away from that of a limitless commodity to one of a valuable, finite and even potentially scarce resource. We need to actively measure our energy use and seek to minimise it wherever possible. The good news is that reduced consumption reduces both emissions and costs, so the benefits are immediately apparent.
Workplaces become Workspaces
Not so long ago the world or work was very much about regular visits to one or more buildings. The daily “commute” was a fact of life for most employees, with only a small percentage regularly working the majority of their working week from other locations. The environmental impact of this behaviour, both from emissions and air pollution, is well documented.
Post Covid-19 the majority of us are now working a significant percentage of our time away from fixed places of work. While this has certainly reduced the number of journeys to work most people are making, it also has some negative consequences. Car use (as a percentage of journeys vs public transport) has increased. Employees working from home are consuming energy to heat homes as places of work, in a way that is significantly less efficient than sharing high-density shared office space.
We are also in danger of increased isolation, stress and a deteriorating work-life balance as our digital world threatens to overwhelm us, with work removed from the physical constraints of time that used to define our working day.
We need to adopt a wider view of the employee, their contribution and their role within the team. Humans don’t thrive as transactional work units, they thrive and contribute as part of a work “tribe” that values what they do. As our work becomes more remote and distributed, this team cultural glue becomes increasingly important to productivity and staff retention.
Profit, Planet & People
Our final area is probably the most challenging for many organisations. We have traditionally used a set of metrics that indicate success and those metrics are almost exclusively to do with money. Whether you look at market cap, EBITDA or market share there is little in those calculations that recognises environmental footprint or sustainability commitments.
What we are seeing, however, is an increasing focus on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) from an investment and sourcing perspective. Research also indicates an increasing focus on company sustainability as a key motivator from younger employees entering the workforce.
It’s our opinion that strong environmental commitment and credentials will move rapidly from niche to mainstream driven by a combination of financial, fiduciary, compliance and HR pressures. Having an effective strategy in place that combines active energy reduction with a properly sourced ethical offsetting program showing measurable progress towards carbon neutrality will rapidly become the minimum acceptable standard.
Somewhat uniquely, challenging circumstances have given us a chance to stop and think about how we work. We have the opportunity to adopt new ways of working that can significantly reduce carbon emissions and slow the progress of climate change.
What’s needed is a new way of thinking about the world of work and our relationship with our staff, supply chain, stakeholders and the wider community. The more we can adopt sustainable, circular business practices across every facet of the organisation, the more we can reduce our impact and footprint on the planet.
About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3
Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a self-assigned mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies. Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.