5 ways to reduce an organization's digital carbon footprint

From optimizing video conferences to minimizing unnecessary data storage, learn practical strategies that can help shrink an organization's digital carbon footprint.

Even sustainability-minded people can forget the environmental impact of digital technologies.

But all tech and the processes to power it have a digital computer footprint. That goes for obvious areas, such as computers and servers, as well as less obvious ones, like networking and software engineering.

Here are some practical tips companies can use to lessen the organizational digital carbon footprint.

1. Adopt a solid information governance strategy

As data has grown, so too has indiscriminate information and data retention. That can drive up the digital carbon footprint.

Ian Hodgkinson, a professor of strategy and research, and Tom Jackson, a professor of information and knowledge management, at Loughborough University in Loughborough, U.K. are developing the Data Carbon Ladder. This tool helps organizations determine how large data sets should be for projects and where to store them. They argue that to reduce the digital carbon footprint, companies need to practice sound data retention policies.

For example, organizations tend to hold onto a significant number of spreadsheets year over year. Many of these files are single-use -- such as the dinner menu options for the end-of-the-year office party -- and remain stored long after they're needed. Files that could be of considerable use to employees -- but are too difficult to find and access -- are also an issue.

"There is often a tendency to generate new data, new information or new knowledge on the presumption that we don't already hold that information," Hodgkinson said. "Therefore, at a click of a button, we can generate lots of new and interesting information."

Instead, employees should examine the organization's available information before creating new data, he said.

"The tendency toward single-use data has significant issues because, in part, that then contributes to the volume of dark data," Hodgkinson said.

Dark data is information an organization stores but does not use, and it has sustainability implications.

Photo of Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson in a server room.
Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson, developers of the Data Carbon Ladder.

"[Dark data] can build over time [and be] forgotten," Hodgkinson said. "Yet it's still being stored somewhere; it's still drawing on energy and consuming power -- unbeknownst to the organization, in many cases."

Poor information governance, the use of inadequate metadata and storing data in a forgotten or hard-to-access location all contribute to the accumulation of dark data.

"You can understand why employees are generating new information, new knowledge, because they can't find all of this stuff or it takes too long to find," Jackson said. "And then once an employee generates this new information, sometimes they won't store it -- which is potentially good, but also that [decision] has a negative connotation for corporate memory and innovation moving forward."

2. Implement longer hardware lifecycles

One way to minimize carbon emissions is to promote a culture of sustainable device usage among employees. Encouraging them to fully use their devices before upgrading them can help the organization in the long run.

Headshot of Steven Moore.Steven Moore, head of climate action at GSMA

Companies should use desktops, laptops and mobile devices for as long as possible -- unless older models aren't energy efficient, according to Steven Moore, head of climate action at GSMA, a London-based mobile industry association.

"We know that once you reach the end of the cycle and you have to replace [equipment], that is actually quite a big hit in terms of the carbon footprint," Moore said.

Companies can also have processes in place to repair and refurbish equipment when possible and donate it when it can no longer perform at the required level.

"We've seen a lot of organizations donating equipment to charities or to people who really need it," Moore said. "Rather than [the item] going in the bin or being recycled, let's see if somebody else can use it."

3. Assess ICT suppliers

An organization's information and communications technology suppliers can significantly affect its digital carbon footprint. Companies can see positive results from working with suppliers that prioritize green computing practices and offer sustainable alternatives.

Moore encourages companies to ask these providers the following:

  • Do you have ISO14001 certification?
  • Do you know what your carbon footprint is?
  • Are you reporting that publicly?
  • Can we access that data?
  • Do you have a carbon reduction target?

If the supplier has set a target, Moore urges companies to confirm that the target is science-based.

"There are best practice carbon reduction targets that they should be aligned to," he said.

4. Consider whether the cloud can help

Less simple -- but critically important -- is analyzing the energy efficiency of the company's data centers, whether owned by the organization or by third-party providers.

Headshot of Mauricio Bermudez Neubauer. Mauricio Bermudez-Neubauer, Accenture

Generally, the cloud offers a more carbon-friendly approach, said Mauricio Bermudez-Neubauer, managing director of carbon strategy and intelligence lead at Accenture, an IT consulting firm, headquartered in Dublin.

That said, before migrating to the cloud, companies should carefully consider their choice of service providers, such as those focusing on renewable energy sources.

"Ensure that your data centers are powered by the cleanest possible energy where economically feasible to do so," he said.

"Not that long ago, [using renewable energy] used to be tricky and expensive; today it's getting very competitive, and in many jurisdictions across the globe, [using renewables is] actually even cheaper than running on traditional energy sources like fossil fuels," Bermudez-Neubauer said.

Renewable energy offerings in North America, some parts of Europe and some areas of Southeast Asia are competitive or less expensive than traditional energy, Bermudez-Neubauer said.

Organizations can also benefit from prioritizing service providers that support sustainability goals, including those that are actively working to minimize the emissions of their data centers, he said.

"The combination of renewable energy, plus the efficiency and performance of the actual servers can deliver important environmental savings, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions," Bermudez-Neubauer said.

5. Small efforts produce quick wins

Reducing the digital carbon footprint can start by addressing the low-hanging fruit. Sending links instead of email attachments, turning off cameras during videoconferences when feasible and shutting down computers at the end of the workday are some simple ways of decreasing the organization's digital carbon emissions.

You can understand why employees are generating new information, new knowledge, because they can't find all of this stuff, or it takes too long to find.
Tom Jackson, professor of information and knowledge management, Loughborough University

While reducing an organization's digital carbon footprint involves considerable effort, these kinds of small behavioral changes are also important, Hodgkinson said.

"There are a lot of quick wins in terms of reflection points with regards to: If I go down this route, is that the best way?" he said.

That's why sustainability education is critical in this area. The better employees understand which digital behaviors generate carbon emissions and ways to lower those emissions, the better they can support the company's long-term goals toward sustainability.

"It's surprising that little tweaks in how you approach a problem, a situation, how you approach data, can have a huge, cumulative impact," Hodgkinson said.

Carolyn Heinze is a Paris-based freelance writer. She covers several technology and business areas, including HR software and sustainability.

Dig Deeper on Sustainable IT

Data Center
Mobile Computing