Can digital transformation be sustainable?

The business benefits of digital transformation are clear, but can it also be sustainable in the age of the climate crisis? This is a complex subject that needs careful consideration as many factors play a role.

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When we talk about digital transformation, we mean the integration of digital technologies into all areas of a business or organisation, which leads to fundamental changes in the way it works. Digital transformation is also about people, culture, and processes, as it is technology, however, for the purpose of this blog, we will focus on the technology aspect of digital transformation. It increases efficiency in various processes and delivers more productivity, more customer satisfaction, and high-quality user experiences. It also delivers data-based insights, improved collaboration, enhanced communication, more agility, fewer human errors, and more security.

Despite these numerous operational benefits, can digital transformation also lead to more sustainability? What is the impact of digital technologies on the environment? These are the questions we want to explore in this blog article. Understanding the critical factors is essential to avoid ‘Greenwashing’ the abilities of digital transformation’s abilities. Aspects such as resource consumption and waste volumes should be considered. This can be a complex debate, with a variety of statistics available and actionable insights.  

Print or on-screen – which is more sustainable?  

One of the most obvious processes that comes to mind when thinking about digital transformation is the digitisation of paper-based processes. Except Integrated Sustainability published an interesting article in 2020 comparing reading a printed document to reading a digital equivalent and the figures used below provide valuable insights into this. 

Over eight trees are needed to produce 100,000 sheets of paper, generating a carbon footprint of 6,000 kg of CO₂ equivalents. The use of energy and water make up the largest part of this footprint. The production of just 20 sheets of paper alone consumes 6.4 litres of fresh water. Added to this is the resource consumption of the printing devices - although, according to Except Integrated Sustainability, the energy consumption during the printing process is minimal. However, it is also important to consider the environmental impact of manufacturing the printer.  

Looking at the alternative, if paper were completely dispensed with and people only read on a screen, this consumption of printed resources would be eliminated. On the other hand, the production of a laptop is responsible for 70% of its overall energy consumption throughout its lifespan. Additionally, the production of each laptop contributes to water consumption equivalent to 6,500 litres. Compare this to print, where once a document is printed, it is readily available, and you can read it as many times as you like. Reading the same document again on a laptop, on the other hand, requires new electricity each time.

In addition, a sheet of paper can be recycled up to seven times, and when used to its maximum, recycling paper can reduce its carbon emissions by 47%, from 6,000 kg per 100,000 sheets down to 3,200 kg. On the other hand, 50% of the emissions generated during the production of a new laptop are offset as soon as the laptop is recycled. For used laptops, this figure can be as high as 75%.

Based on these figures, Except Integrated Sustainability points out that the CO₂ emissions of both digital and a physical document will depend upon how a document is used. They note that if someone reads a document only once, then a digital version generates less CO₂. However, printing becomes more environmentally friendly if people read or share a document more than three times. Thus, the way people use documents significantly affects the overall CO₂ emissions.

Resource consumption of digital collaboration and communication  

Digital collaboration is a flexible and powerful way of connecting teams and workers based at any location, but its sustainability merits need careful consideration.

As digitalisation progresses, the amount of data that is sent back and forth, downloaded, and stored also increases. For example, according to figures from Domo, the average person produces 102 MB of data every minute

In 2019, the German magazine Oekotest published an article titled: "An email is just as harmful to the climate as a plastic bag". As data volumes increase, so does energy consumption:

Storing 1GB of data consumes 0.28kg of CO₂. 
Downloading 1GB of data consumes 3kg of CO₂.

Source: Carbon Footprint of the Internet Over Time Since 1990, 2023

Fortunately, we can take steps to minimise these issues. In this blog article, we have compiled tips on how each individual can more consciously handle their data and minimise data waste: Five ways to clean up your data ‘junk' and save energy.

How sustainable is the cloud?  

One of the key technologies of digital transformation is migration to the cloud. It offers cross-location collaboration, cost-effective planning, more flexibility, and protection against data loss - to name but a few benefits. As a result, more and more organisations are increasingly migrating their IT infrastructure and applications to the cloud, reaping its many benefits.

This approach also has an impact on resource consumption of course. Data centres are estimated to be responsible for up to 3% of global electricity consumption today and are projected to touch 4% by 2030. This is due to the energy consumption of server infrastructures, cooling systems, fire suppression systems, backup power systems, and monitoring and management tools. Added to this is the enormous water consumption for cooling which also has an impact on sustainability. You can learn more about the sustainability of data centres in this blog article: Just how sustainable are data centres and Cloud Services? 

Sustainability will also need to be a key consideration regarding the use of AI in data centres. In a recent survey, 57% of data centre owners said they would trust an AI model to make operational decisions — an increase of almost 20% from the previous year. However, AI systems rely heavily on vast amounts of data, and training and delivering AI requires enormous amounts of computing power and data storage. Every time an AI application calculates figures, analyses data or answers questions, it uses a “graphic processing unit”. These GPUs, which are usually stored within servers in data centres, consume around four times as much power as the servers used for cloud applications. Resource-hungry workloads using CPUs and GPUs, will increase the energy consumption of data centres by 12% by 2023

The global problem of electronic waste

The use of digital services requires endpoint devices such as laptops, tablets, smartphones and alike. The Wi-Fi network (or mobile cellular network) used also requires components and electricity. If all these devices are ultimately decommissioned, e-waste will inevitably be produced. 

Figures from Except Integrated Sustainability show that electronic waste accumulates at an incredible rate of three times faster than the global population is growing, with 90% of it being illegally discarded. In 2019, humans produced 54 million tons of e-waste – an average of 7.3kg per person on Earth. The data showed a 44.4 million metric ton increase over five years. However, according to documentation, only 17.4 percent of this waste was collected and properly recycled.

Although electronic devices often contain valuable metals, they often contain highly toxic metals. Frequently, children and women in developing nations are tasked with harvesting these e-waste piles for valuable metals, a semi-recycling process that poses risks to both the environment and the people that work with it - such as when workers resort to burning laptops to extract copper.

E-waste is both a hazard and valuable resource. A UN Report suggests that at least $10bn in precious metals, including gold and platinum, are dumped each year in electronic waste. Safe retrieval can reduce environmental harm from raw material extraction and address social and environmental sustainability issues. Responsible recycling can transform e-waste into a sustainable resource.

How do you enable a sustainable digital transformation?

Taking all of the above factors into account, the key to greater sustainability in digital transformation lies in three main aspects: 

  1. The use of digital technologies with renewable energy. 

  2. Refurbished or remanufactured devices should be favoured when purchasing digital technologies.

  3. Digital technologies that can no longer be repaired, refurbished, or remanufactured must be disposed of responsibly.


1. The use of digital technologies with renewable energy 

The use of digital technologies with renewable energy is key to reducing CO₂ emissions and creating a clean digital world. Renewable energy sources significantly lower CO₂ emissions and are infinitely available. Whether it is the company's IT infrastructure or the data centre of the provider you use, renewable energy should always be used. 

To put this in context, for example, a study found that cloud servers powered by 100% green energy only consume a third of CO₂e per year/server compared to cloud servers not powered by green energy. 

2. Use of refurbished or remanufactured digital technologies

Reusing used devices to drastically reduce global waste production and protect primary resources is the second key.  

Whether it is laptops, servers, or printers, businesses and individuals should always try to use refurbished or remanufactured options. 

The same principle should also apply to paper-based processes if they are still in use. The aim should always be to use recycled paper instead of fresh fibre paper. This also conserves natural resources, including raw materials and reduces the energy and water required to process and produce components and products.

For companies designing new products, it should be noted that 80% of a product's environmental impact is influenced by decisions made at the design stage. These decisions influence a product’s materials, durability, repairability, and end-of-life outcomes. 

3. Responsible recycling of digital technologies that can no longer be reused

Whatever the approach to using digital technologies, inevitably eventually the systems will reach the end of their life. IT infrastructure must be recycled responsibly to reduce the amount of electronic waste worldwide.

You should research the most appropriate way to recycle your technologies in your location (this could be local recycling centres, retailer programmes, or manufacturer takeback programmes that will expertly recycle components). You should also always look for appropriately certified recyclers to ensure e-waste is responsibly recycled.
In some cases, you can help to prepare a device for recycling by removing components such as SIM cards, batteries, additional memory cards etc., which can be separated for reuse or refurbishment. 

Sustainable digital transformation has the potential to enhance sustainability

Digital transformation has the potential to enhance sustainability. However it is a complex question, and the results can vary greatly depending upon the circumstances of the organisation using it.
To enhance the sustainability of digital transformation, you need to consider both the IT infrastructure used and the potential e-waste it generates.

The use of recycled or remanufactured technology can help to boost sustainability. When technology reaches the end of its useful life, it must be disposed of safely and responsibly.
Overall, using renewable energy across the board, from design and manufacture to daily operations, is a vital part of any move to improve the sustainability of digital transformation. 

In our second blog article, we present three digitalisation initiatives that have a positive impact on the sustainability of an organisation.

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