Why IT is central to corporate sustainability — and where to start

Presented by Cloudreach

Propelled by mounting pressure by young environmentalists, a record number of companies in the S&P 500 are talking about the importance of sustainability strategies in their earnings calls. And businesses should indeed shoulder a large part of the burden because corporate IT has a direct impact on the environment, says Rob Duffy, head of solution development at Cloudreach.

“The information and technology sector alone currently uses up to 8% of the world’s energy, and that’s going to be up to 14% by 2040,” Duffy says. “This is a growing piece of overall energy consumption worldwide. What IT can do to reduce that amount of energy being used can have a significant impact.”

That includes everything from the tremendous amount of power that data centers consume — by some reports up to 3% of the world’s total consumption —  to the enormous amount of water that these data centers use as part of the cooling process. There’s also the complex physical infrastructure that has a definite lifespan and ends up in landfills. Inside companies, roughly 20% of racked enterprise servers are completely unused and abandoned by application administrators because of insufficient monitoring of the infrastructure and the lack of a rigorous decommissioning process.

Then there’s the amount of energy that large websites consume. For instance, a popular technology site can generate as much as 2g of carbon for every visit, and has about 10m visits per month. It takes 9,500 trees to reduce that amount of carbon from the atmosphere. Multiply that effect across all the most popular websites in the world, and the amount of carbon produced is staggering.

How the cloud can support decarbonization

The good news is that the cloud may hold the key to achieving corporate sustainability goals. This year at AWS re:Invent 2021, Dave Chapman, Head of Strategy + Product brought Keisha Garcia, VP Digital Foundations at BP, and Tom Blood, AWS Digital Innovation Leader, on stage for an episode of the  Cloudbusting podcast to talk about how migrating the cloud can make a major difference in a company’s sustainability efforts.

For BP, this includes a restructuring of the entire organization, with the goal of becoming an integrated energy company.

“We’re making sustainability part of our DNA,” Garcia said. “We have a focus on getting to net zero by 2050 or sooner. Digital is truly a catalyst to help drive us to meet our goals.”

She noted that BP has also set aims linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals for each of its three sustainability focus areas: 10 for net zero, 5 for people and 5 for the planet. Their cloud migration to AWS was instrumental in kicking off their effort, she added, providing a greater level of efficiency that has contributed to their aspirations.

“Amazon has a stated goal of going 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and we’re on track to do that by 2025,” Blood said, pointing out research from the 451 Report which showed that companies can reduce their energy consumption by 80 percent through migrating to cloud on AWS.

“AWS data centers are so much more efficient from an energy usage and carbon utilization perspective than a private enterprise data center because of the way in which they source their power and the way in which they manage their data center,” Duffy says. “They’re able to support more users on the same number of servers, which makes it more efficient.”

The cloud also gives companies the tools to become more efficient in the way they design and architect applications. For example, running applications and computations on serverless platforms, only when there’s demand for them means not wasting any additional power or energy with idle applications that are waiting for that kind of demand.

There are ways in which you can use cloud and the resources of cloud to reduce your carbon footprint not just there, but in other areas of your business, Duffy adds. This is part of what Cloudreach is addressing with its customers — helping them solve large business challenges while taking control of their carbon footprint through cloud services. For instance, database tools are available to measure and monitor a company’s supply chain, including energy use. And companies like Unilever are using Google satellite imagery that monitors deforestation to track its suppliers and make sure that they’re not supplying them with resources or ingredients that are leading to deforestation.

What accountable sustainability in tech looks like

“Small changes in how companies design their applications add up,” Duffy says. “Large websites can look at things that won’t have a large impact on customers, but can have a significant impact on the way in which their applications run – and the energy they consume.”

He points to the case of a company that compressed thousands and thousands of log files that ran across their environment every day. Just by finding a compression algorithm that worked more efficiently than the one they were using helped them save 50,000 tons of carbon entering the atmosphere, because they were able to use space much more efficiently.

Corporate responsibility on the individual level

Much in the same way employees accept their own responsibility for a company’s performance or growth, they can accept a role in improving the company’s sustainability efforts. That can include everything from ensuring they’re shutting down unused workloads to taking responsibility for developing less intensive software.

As part of that, companies can empower their employees to create new sustainable transformations as well, such as this no-code journey to gamify sustainability.

“As leaders in business, we need to allow everyone to be able to create some of those sustainability transformations,” Duffy says. “We need to give people the freedom, the tools, the capabilities to do that. I think it becomes all of our jobs. And then as businesses, we need to think about the KPIs that we can use to measure some of these things.”

So, while IT has a major role, sustainability is not just the responsibility of one department. Thinking about the little things that lead up to big changes should be a priority across all levels of the organization.

“Find the ways in which you can help your part of the organization be more efficient,” Duffy says. “And help foster and create new business models that are driven by sustainability, but enabled by technology.”

Technologists have the power to make decisions that directly impact sustainability and decarbonization efforts, from something as simple as rethinking their compression algorithms, moving away from GZIP to better, more efficient ones. There are compression algorithms that are 30 percent more efficient. Your choice of programming languages matters, too, for instance — some languages are more carbon intensive than others. The AWS blog offers even more hands-on ideas for day-to-day sustainability contributions, because the effort belongs to everyone.

“Don’t look at this as somebody else’s responsibility — it starts with you,” Garcia said during the podcast. “What can you do to contribute? How do you educate yourself around sustainability and the goals and the things that are happening? What is your company doing? Start to demand that we do more. It’s going to take all of us.”

Blood added, “There’s this great phrase that says, ‘think big, start small, go fast.’ That’s what we should all do. Start with whatever the smallest, simplest thing is, but also be bold and audacious. What’s the biggest thing I could possibly do to have an amazing impact on the world, on climate, on society, on diversity and inclusion? All these topics are interrelated anyway. We should all work on that.”

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