What Is Digital Sustainability and How Does It Drive ESG Goals?

November 04, 2021

Contributor: Ashutosh Gupta

Deciding where and how to apply digital to your sustainability strategy will be key to meeting your organization’s ESG goals.

“If the internet were a country, its electricity use would be the third largest in the world, behind China and the U.S.,” Aapo Markkanen, Senior Director Analyst, reminded a group of executives during a recent Gartner webinar. What, then, is the role of digital in sustainability?

The degree to which you deploy technology for good will depend on your sustainable-business strategy, according to Markkanen and co-presenters Kristin Moyer, Distinguished VP Analyst, and Bettina Tratz-Ryan, VP Analyst.

Watch now: Global CIOs, Lead Digital Sustainability to Drive ESG Performance

Clearly, digital infrastructure and services can have a hugely negative impact on sustainability (the internet accounts for 3.7% of total global greenhouse gas emissions), but digital can also be an engine of sustainability — if it’s positioned effectively and at the center of your strategy. 

Consider two simple examples:

  1. Smart buildings are a technology solution to a material environmental issue. In this case, solution elements such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) help reduce the carbon footprint of corporate real estate. 
  2. Data management and analytics are critical enablers for strengthening existing social safety nets that otherwise may be unable to identify, reach and serve all the potential beneficiaries. 

Deciding where and how to use technology to solve a problem or to amplify an existing solution is key to a successful sustainable business strategy. So where do you start?

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Applying digital to sustainability 

First, it’s important to assess what is material to your strategy. The list is long — from climate change and biodiversity to human rights, health equity and digital ethics. The key is to figure out how different issues impact your stakeholders and business so you can prioritize your efforts. 

But none of these issues is simple, so you’ll need new thinking and new digital investments. “If you try to improve sustainability without that sort of ambition, you are likely to fail,” says Markkanen.

Digital sustainability requires addressing each material issue with a set of problem-specific solutions, leveraging information technology (IT), operational technology (OT) and engineering technology (ET), as well as non-technical innovations. 

For example, if a circular economy (a model that promotes reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling of existing materials and products as much as possible) is one of your sustainability goals, then possible solutions might be:

  • IT and OT: blockchain to trace a material’s origin, or waste exchanges to facilitate cross-industry circularity
  • Engineering technology: material science to extend product life, improve recycling rate and enable easier upgrades
  • Non-technical innovation: a shift in marketing strategies to change customer behavior toward recycled products and service-based revenue streams

Becoming a change agent for corporate sustainability

By developing a shared understanding of digital sustainability among executive leaders, you can more easily prioritize how you develop and deploy the technologies you need it. Besides contributing to corporate sustainability initiatives, CIOs and other IT leaders will also have to meet specific ESG goals around the sustainability of IT infrastructure and services themselves. 

Four actions will fuel more effective delivery:

No. 1: Address specific IT domains

Focus on six key areas — energy efficiency, e-waste, paperless transactions, material efficiency (utilization, capacity) and supply chain. To evaluate IT sustainability, use parameters such as cloud utilization, power management or the number of devices per employee. 

No. 2: Align around what’s material

Work with other executive leaders and promote joint initiatives to align around high-importance material issues, using the digital sustainability taxonomy to build accountability. For example:

  • IT might own digital technology, worker safety, and transparency.
  • Product might own digital ethics and sustainability of the business model.
  • Supply chain might own the carbon footprint and responsible sourcing.
  • HR might own worker safety and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
  • Marketing might own environmental justice and community engagement.

Remember that having a sustainability “czar” won’t guarantee results; you need invested executives dedicated to implementing change across all functions.

No. 3: Identify and apply digital technologies to address material issues 

For example:

  • Packaging waste: Reusable transport packaging can provide location, condition and other data, while materials informatics can identify ways to reduce packaging.
  • Sustainable sourcing: Wearable devices can detect and warn employees of health issues, and geospatial data can determine whether a project will pose a threat to water or wildlife.
  • Product transparency: Sensors and RFID tags can trace a product’s origins, while a circular economy platform can signal when to refurbish a product.
  • Product life cycle management: IoT and artificial intelligence can indicate the need for preventive maintenance, while ubiquitous connectivity allows remote diagnostics.

No. 4: Track data and progress in real time

Establish an ESG data platform to gather and analyze ESG-related data from operations as well as the entire value chain. Deliver an integrated set of analytical, reporting and business application tools that can provide the necessary hindsight, insight and foresight.

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