Environmental concerns have become much more prominent over the past two decades. The terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ are regularly conflated. The two are, whilst closely related, not interchangeable.
The former refers to practices that can be consistently repeated for a prolonged period of time without the resources required diminishing significantly. Something that is environmentally friendly is designed to benefit the environment exclusively.
Electric cars provide a good example of how these practices regularly overlap with one another: they do not emit pollutants and are therefore kinder to the environment but their creation was governed more by the need for transport solutions that were not entirely reliant on oil as a power source.
Sustainable practice typically benefits the natural world because it requires organisations to behave responsibly; to reduce unnecessary expenditure and extract the maximum possible benefit from all resources – including those occurring naturally or whose production is in some way environmentally harmful. Such practises are often inadvertently introduced or developed by organisations reacting to changing circumstances or seeking to maximise profit. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been particularly pronounced recently.
Employees have been working from home thus reducing the costs organisations typically accrue by maintaining offices. Equipment is being refurbished rather than replaced. All outgoings are being stringently reviewed and excess spending trimmed. One of the keys to adapting to the ‘new normal’ will be preserving and improving these practices.
Becoming more sustainable will bring about greater efficiency and enhance the appeal of organisations to a consumer base whose desire to spend their money on ethical goods and services shows no signs of abating.
Technology and digital transformation strategies are the primary drivers of sustainable practice and organisations that build on what they have achieved in recent months are certain to reap the rewards. Here are the most prominent examples of tech that can propel sustainable practice:
Optimised, reliable and secure network infrastructure
In order to allow employees to operate productively whilst working remotely, companies need to offer them access to a reliable and secure network. This, in turn, will allow them to access the digital resources they need to fulfil their roles.
A study by Gartner revealed that each minute of downtime costs businesses more than £4,0001 and the likelihood of downtime increases substantially if the unique challenges brought about by remote working are not considered and addressed. Significant savings can be brought about by eradicating the need to maintain an office or even moving to smaller premises, but these can quickly become a false economy if doing so adversely affects employee productivity.
Organisations that have continued to operate throughout the pandemic are certain to have had employees work from home and are likely to have experienced some problems with their networks. A discussion with a network consultant will typically be enough to partially diagnose the problem and begin the process of setting up the reliable and secure network you’ll need to benefit from the lower costs and environmental impact attributable to remote working.
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The internet of things (IoT)
Of course, some organisations will have to maintain some kind of physical workspace. For such companies, connected devices can be a highly effective means of driving down maintenance and running costs.
Smart lighting can be used to ensure that no energy is wasted by operating on timers or even schedules created via dedicated applications. Likewise, smart heating and thermostats can prevent fiscal waste by ensuring that they are only used when necessary. Both of these, of course, also positively impact the environment.
IoT can also be used to secure office locations in order to lower insurance premiums and provide employees with greater safety through tools such as facial recognition cameras. Connected devices can even bring about more efficient waste management with sensors installed in receptacles informing management companies of when a collection is required, thus eliminating the need for unnecessary visits, resulting in lower carbon emissions.
Big data, a.i. artificial intelligence and process automation
Maintaining sustainable practice is often dependent upon the possession and exploitation of knowledge. The identification of seasonal shifts in demand can inform production schedules and ensure raw materials are used efficiently. Production processes can also be optimised to maximise output, thus resulting in fewer resources being needed to manufacture items.
Finally, automation can better perform processes to ensure a consistent outcome, again minimising the likelihood of error causing wastage. In turn, this will benefit the environment by reducing the need for materials to be extracted. From a business perspective, it will bring about healthier profit margins.
Supply chain management – a process which significantly influences an organisation’s environmental impact and has been severely hindered by the COVID-19 outbreak – blended with big data analytics, provides a potent means of improving sustainability. Of the organisations that have harnessed this tech as a means of improving supply chains, 46% state they have been better prepared to meet changing demands, 36% have seen supply efficiency increase by at least 10%, and 33% have reported that they have extracted greater benefits from their various resources.2
Agribusiness is a sector that has already benefited significantly from a combination of AI and big data. The crop growing process is influenced by various factors and the combination of large data sets and algorithmically determined findings have been used to greatly develop understandings of these and how they can be practicably influenced. In turn, this has led to farmers knowing exactly when to plant certain crops, what nutrients were needed to enrichen their soil and so on.
In a world where it is estimated that demand for foodstuffs will double within the next 30 years3 and deforestation is the second-largest source of Carbon Dioxide4, the ability to produce more crops within limited space – a practice known as ‘sustainable intensification' – will prove vital.
AI, big data and automation technology (which can be used to optimise harvesting procedures) are certain to be integral, with academics having noted that this technology is, over time, likely to have a more profound effect on crop production than the introduction of the tractor in the 1900s.5
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The Cloud and virtual infrastructure
Hardware consumes a considerable amount of power. Servers, not only drawing large amounts of electricity themselves but also in need of constant cooling, are a prime example. Moving from on-site to virtual infrastructure where such equipment is shared and managed externally is therefore both an excellent means of reducing an organisation’s overheads and its impact on the environment.
Studies from Microsoft have suggested that virtualised infrastructure is 93% more energy efficient than that which is housed on-site. Furthermore, thanks to companies’ devotion to sourcing renewable energy for their data centres, the report also concludes that they produce 98% fewer carbon emissions.6
Readers of this article would be done a disservice if I were not to also point out that reduced costs and more sustainable practice are not the only benefits of cloud computing: services are also highly adaptive and can change rapidly to better align with organisations’ needs. Essentially, if an organisation needs more software licenses, it can access them immediately following payment. If they need to upgrade a server or require greater storage capacity then, again, they can be accessed immediately.
Cloud vendors also typically offer flexible payment options. Organisations can opt to pay for services on monthly, quarterly or annual cycles. In some instances, services can be accessed on a credit basis where organisations are billed for what they’ve used at the end of agreed terms.
A 2019 survey revealed that 47% of consumers want to work with organisations and brands that observe ethical practices and are environmentally friendly. How, though, does an organisation ensure it truly observes sustainable practice when it cannot control the actions of others in its supply chain? Blockchain could provide the answer.
Blockchain is essentially a means of linking various digital transactions to one another. This information is then stored in a public database. This ledger would be automatically updated each time any of the companies present in a chain interacted with one another, allowing customers to build a complete view of an organisation’s supply chain. As this database would be externally managed and automatically updated, it would provide consumers with a transparent view of an organisation’s activity and devotion to sustainability.
With a large number of consumers looking to purchase goods and services from organisations that can verify their dedication to sustainability, blockchain has the potential to provide businesses with a unique and potent USP.
- Gartner (2014) The Cost of Downtime
- Medium (2019) Benefits of using Big Data in Supply Chain Management
- United Nations (2009) Food Production Must Double by 2050 to Meet Demand from World’s Growing Population, Innovative Strategies Needed to Combat Hunger, Experts Tell Second Committee
- Nature Geoscience (2009) CO2 emissions from forest loss
- Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems (2019) Big Data Analysis for Sustainable Agriculture on Geospatial Cloud Framework
- WSP (2018) Microsoft-WSP study highlights environmental benefits of cloud computing
- eMarketer (2019) Sustainability is Factoring into 2019 Holiday Purchases