IT Sustainability Think Tank: Ensuring intent matches actions to close the sustainability gap

There is mounting anecdotal evidence that enterprises are struggling to ensure their statements of intent on sustainability are matching their actions, so what steps can they take to bridge the gap?

As sustainability becomes a global priority, enterprises are feeling the heat to adopt sustainability goals and to reduce their environmental impact. Sustainability in IT refers to the adoption of sustainable practices in the development, deployment, and disposal of IT infrastructure and systems. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a "sustainability gap" within some enterprises. This gap occurs when enterprises' statements of intent on IT sustainability do not match their actions.

One potential approach to closing the sustainability gap is for enterprises to re-evaluate their green IT goals and scale them back. This might involve reducing the amount of IT-related energy use and other resources that are consumed in the normal course of their operations. However, this should be done with caution, as it might risk sacrificing their long-term sustainability objectives.

The other approach would be to proactively seek out ways to address the gap. This could include sourcing or procuring refurbished or remanufactured equipment instead of always buying new. This would help to minimise the environmental impact of their IT operations, as refurbished or remanufactured equipment would have an extended lifetime, resulting in fewer resources being used to produce new equipment.

Additionally, enterprises can help towards digital carbon reduction and avoidance of digital carbon emissions by adopting sustainable software engineering practices. This would involve using efficient and sustainable coding practices and technologies, enabling them to use fewer resources when developing software.

They should also ensure their software is secure and reliable, to reduce its environmental burden. In the development of new software, it must ideally use fewer hardware resources, resulting in low embodied carbon or low e-waste.

It could include campaigns and initiatives to raise awareness of IT sustainability in the enterprise, supply chain, and beyond. Moreover, they ought to consider a means of curbing the emissions that their website produces, by streamlining it, evaluating their digital marketing practices, and adopting more efficient technologies.

Social sustainability

Often when sustainability is discussed social and economic sustainability can take a back seat. We tend to think of sustainability as predominately environmental.

Enterprises should take steps to address issues such as digital addiction and the digital divide – both of which are related to social sustainability, as well as the e-waste issue.

The term "digital divide" describes the disparity between different demographic groups and geographic areas in terms of their access to modern information and communication technologies (ICT). In developing countries worldwide, the digital divide is characterised by insufficient access to digital technology and the internet. Narrowing the digital divide requires improving digital literacy, promoting digital skills democracy, raising social mobility, mitigating economic inequality, and fostering sustainable economic growth.

It is critically important that enterprises start limiting our e-waste footprint. As per, in 2021, the world produced 57.4 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste, and this quantity is rising annually by an average of 2 Mt. As of 2023, the total volume of unrecycled e-waste on earth is more than 347 million metric tonnes (Mt), with just 17.4% of e-waste known to be collected and recycled properly.

Bridging the sustainability gap: potential solutions

To aid enterprises in closing the sustainability gap, they can implement the following strategies: decreasing embodied carbon in IT, advancing sustainable software engineering, and embracing circular economy practices in IT.

  • Establishing sustainable IT policies: Enterprises should design sustainable IT policies that reduce the environmental impact of their IT processes and infrastructure. This can be done by implementing efficient energy management systems, using renewable sources of energy, incentivising the use of recycled materials, and adopting responsible sustainable procurement practices.
  • Promoting green digital behaviour in employees: Enterprises should educate their employees on the importance of green digital behaviour and create awareness about the impact of their online activities on the environment. This can be done by providing training sessions and encouraging sustainable digital practices, such as using energy-saving devices, implementing energy-saving software, switching off devices after use rather than opting for standby mode, reducing brightness of computer screens, and avoiding unnecessary web searches.
  • Dealing with e-waste and recycling: Enterprises should adopt e-waste recycling regulations and practices to reduce their environmental impact. This should include extending the life of devices and existing infrastructure as long as possible, properly disposing of old devices, investing in recycling infrastructure and helping raise awareness.
  • Addressing digital addiction and the digital divide: Enterprises should use their IT services to help bridge the digital divide, raise awareness and provide access to digital technologies.  Enterprises have a responsibility to educate people about digital addiction, and promote their staff to take routine breaks from using digital devices, as well as strive for equilibrium between their online and offline lives. 

Monitoring and measuring enterprises’ progress is essential to ensuring that the statements of intent on IT sustainability match their actions. This involves setting up a sustainability reporting framework and tracking progress against enterprises’ sustainability goals. To promote greater sustainability, it is necessary to integrate regular sustainability audits into the process to pinpoint areas where improvements can be made.

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