How Sustainable Is Digital?

It has been sold as a boon for the environment, but this may not be true


The Industrial Revolution arguably advanced humanity more significantly than any societal development that preceded it. Without it, the rapid technological developments of the 21st century wouldn’t have been possible; mass production, automation - the Industrial Revolution laid the foundations. The vast urban centers it birthed are the focus of today’s world - 66% of people will live in them by 2050 - and the very foundations of modern economic and social models were (for better or worse) laid in those formative decades.

The environmental impact of the Revolution has been disastrous, though. As a society we are now well-aware of the potential impact of global warming on our planet - much of which is a by-product of mass industry - and any emerging industry or technology is (rightfully) under pressure to be ‘green’ from the off. Knowing what we now know, the Digital Revolution has actually been greatly concerned with the eradication or mitigation of some of the Industrial Revolution’s most environmentally impactful aspects, and sustainable products are big business.

Importantly, sustainability is no longer a virtuous add-on for a company to cite at the end of an advert, it is now a vital competitive tool - the case for sustainability in business is not even a green one, it has become financial. Fortune picked out a number of examples, from a variety of industries, in which sustainability has been as ‘good for business from the bottom-line up’ as it has for the environment, only with more tangible results. Indeed, sustainability has a place in all sectors, and a 2014 study by McKinsey found a strong - and not entirely surprising - correlation between resource efficiency and financial performance. Those with a more advanced sustainability program outperform their competition in more than just public opinion.

Companies are still slow to implement proper sustainability programs, though. Fortune point to the fact that only one in five companies in the S&P 500 ‘had explicit, long-term sustainability goals, even though more than a third (36%) said sustainability was a top-three priority.’ This disconnect can be attributed, in part, to the general public acceptance of the importance of sustainability and the general public inaction to personally work to achieve it. But, also, the carbon footprint of a digital-first company is far more difficult to quantify than that of a traditional service-provide or a supplier of a tangible product.

More generally, the sustainability of digital enterprise is yet to have been properly assessed, and its possible to argue that the Internet raises yet more environmental issues, rather than solutions. For everyone that points out the reduction in paper use as digital’s great success, there are others to highlight the fact that even the benefits of this are disputed. ‘Going paperless’ and ‘saving trees’ are often put in the same sentence by companies looking to encourage a (cheaper) paperless system, but according to Mark Pitts, executive director of printing-writing, at the American Forest And Paper Association (AFANDPA), ‘What people often don't realize is that the paper-making process is sustainable, and claims to the contrary are misleading to the consumer.’ More than 65% of paper was recycled in the US in 2012, according to the Guardian, and forest coverage is actually up as much as 28% in northern USA, though, one could argue, this must have something to do with the drop in paper usage.

The digital ecosystem contributes significantly to global emissions - 2%, or as much as the emissions from global aviation - and its contribution is only set to grow exponentially. The intangibility of digital information means that its carbon footprint is often an under-considered factor. Data centers are far from the world’s greenest things - powering and cooling them costs more than the equipment itself and they number in the millions in the US alone. They are incredible power guzzlers. According to Andrew Ellis, professor of optical communications at Aston University, At least 8% of UK energy is currently used by the Internet and, by 2035, it could consume the nation’s entire power supply.

One has to bear in mind when discussing these figures that only around 43% of the world currently has access to the internet. Couple this with predictions around the Internet of Things - Gartner estimate 21 billion connected devices will be live by 2020 - and the potential amount of data being produced is astronomical. This will require yet more data centers. Smartphones and tablets use dramatically less energy than traditional consumer electronics - games consoles, TVs, etc. - but the energy required to support them is huge. Initiatives are in place aimed at improving the energy efficiency of these centers but, when their sheer number is considered, the data boom becomes a very different phenomenon. For all its incredible potential and life-changing applications, until data storage can be made more efficient or the digital revolution solves some key environmental concerns, ‘going digital’ may actually be doing more harm than good. 

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