Digital sobriety: a responsible corporate approach
Climate change is a major challenge facing modern society. Attaining carbon neutrality by 2050 has been an international objective to fight climate change since the release of the 2018 IPPC report. The need to take action is becoming more urgent than ever before, and several major players (countries, cities, companies, investors, etc.) have already taken steps toward carbon neutrality. To attain these sustainability objectives, we must take into account every factor that could directly or indirectly harm the planet. Although very few people are aware of its environmental impact, digital technology has significant repercussions that must be taken into consideration. Given that our world is becoming increasingly digitalized, it’s essential to form a better understanding of the impact of our digital use.
The impacts of digital technology
Despite often being eco-friendly technology still has a number of environmental drawbacks. Studies have shown that 4% of greenhouse gases in the world are a product of digital consumption. By 2025, this percentage is estimated to double to 8%. Digital carbon footprint refers to the amount of CO2e* emitted by information technology and communication (ITC) related activities. According to an ADEME report, digital emissions are produced by data centres (25%), network infrastructure (28%) and consumer devices (47%) such as computers, cellphones and tablets. To understand the digital pollution associated with electronic devices, everything from their life cycle and manufacturing to waste management must be considered. Many studies reveal the majority of CO2e is generated during the manufacturing phase. In 2020, an estimated 50 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste was produced, of which less than 20% was recycled.
*It’s important to understand the difference between CO2 and CO2e in order to understand its environmental impact. CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is an international norm for calculating all environmental impacts beyond just carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, it is an aggregate of pollution data that serves as a comparative indicator.
The negative impacts notwithstanding, new technologies have been shown to have many benefits and boost efficiency gains while reducing many companies’ greenhouse gas emissions It is worthwhile to discuss the concept of rebound effects here. This describes the phenomenon by which any energy and material savings from technological advances are cancelled out by our tendency to consume more. The advent of 5G, for example, could have major consequences for the environment. Though more efficient than 4G, 5G does consume more energy. Ecologists are debating the rebound effect of widespread 5G deployment, which will increase data consumption and telecommunication use. Yes, technological advances (e.g., artificial intelligence) may have positive implications for the environment, but their negative impacts and the rebound effects shouldn’t be downplayed.
In addition to having a considerable impact on the environment, digital technology has social repercussions. Hyperconnectivity is an issue that has been discussed for quite some time. The pervasiveness of technology can have negative consequences, especially on mental health. The coronavirus pandemic and multiple lockdowns have caused digital technology use to skyrocket. For example, COVID-19 has altered the way we work, forcing us to remain constantly connected through our electronic devices. The pandemic has contributed to increased awareness around digital overconsumption. To counter this hyperconnectivity and its repercussions on mental health, a new law has recently been adopted by the government of Ontario requiring employers to respect their employees’ right to disconnect. The pandemic has also highlighted social digital disparities. Certain groups, such as Indigenous peoples, low-income households, the elderly and new arrivals, do not enjoy full access to the economic, social and educational benefits of digital technology.
CDR: A new paradigm
In an era when digital technology has led to major changes in our lives and created multiple business opportunities, new ethical questions and responsibilities have emerged regarding its use. These new responsibilities have recently led to the development of the concept of corporate digital responsibility (CDR). CDR is “a set of practices and behaviours that help an organization use data and digital technologies in ways that are perceived as socially, economically, and environmentally responsible.” Just like corporate social responsibility (CSR), CDR is considered a type of governance. When placed at the core of a business’s values and mission, CDR governs all decision-making and extends beyond regulations to allow companies to have a positive impact on the planet and society.
Digital sobriety: A simple solution
Digital sobriety, a concept that emerged in the 2000s, proposes we reconsider our digital technology use in order to reduce its negative societal and environmental impacts. The concept itself is about technological tool use and involves a paradigm shift in our consumption habits. Although a relatively recent concept, digital sobriety is increasingly gaining traction in a world that’s ever more conscious of social and environmental causes. Digital sobriety is therefore an easy solution for both individuals and companies to adopt, as it is aimed primarily at modifying behaviour, unlike other aspects of CDR which often entail major changes. For example, using servers powered by clean energy requires substantial analyses and investment. It’s therefore not true that reducing our digital footprint is complex. We can take action by changing the way we use technology.
Digital sobriety aligns with the “5 R’s” developed by the BureauVert group in France:
|to accept the current consumption model for technological products, namely the frequent replacement of devices and planned obsolescence.|
|your Internet and electronic device use by disconnecting from sites you are not consulting and shutting off your devices at night.|
|available digital resources instead of charging them or creating new electronic documents.|
|old electronic devices at collection centres rather than keeping them at home or throwing them out in the regular trash.|
|with nature by spending time without your electronic devices.|
There are already several concrete steps you can take to reduce your technological footprint. For example, extending the lifespan of your electronic devices. As our energy in Québec is, mostly, clean, 80% of greenhouse gas emissions are produced during manufacturing. If each of us slowed the rate at which we bought new devices by repairing or upgrading our existing devices, this would have major environmental benefits. Other habits such as shutting off devices at night and on the weekends would save significant amounts of kWh and extend the lifespan of these devices. Internet users can also include a link instead of adding large attachments to an e-mail and limit their video calls.
A responsible corporate approach
While individuals do have a role to play in reducing their digital footprint, companies can play a larger one through digital sobriety, since 55% of carbon emissions from technology are associated with the use of electronic tools or data processing (e.g., terminals, data centres and networks). As Canadian companies are responsible for a significant amount of energy consumption (up to 84%) and over half of them have undergone digital transformation, it is crucial they address their digital footprint. It is predicted that over the next few years, green strategies and initiatives for digital footprint reduction will be seen as a differentiation factor for all industries.
As the first B Corp certified consulting firm, Talsom has experience in helping others get certified. Thanks to our varied expertise, we can guide you through the audit phase so you can obtain or maintain your certification. We can also assist you with evaluating the amount of CO2e linked to your company’s digital technology use.