Making a business case for sustainability in digital and IT
Blog posted by: Antonina Klentsova, Digital and Sustainability Expert & Co-Author/Lead Editor, ITIL® 4: Sustainability in Digital and IT, 18 August 2022.
How well-prepared are organizations to start their sustainability journey in digital and IT?
It’s often difficult to start, either through lack of awareness about the problem or engaging in too much talk and little action.
However, with greater understanding of how sustainability will make organizations’ and other people’s lives better – while supporting their business goals – we realize that it’s a problem to solve now, not in the future.
Equally, many companies associate sustainability only with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. But there are three sustainability pillars: social, environmental and economic. And there are numerous areas connected to each pillar: e-waste, responsible sourcing, digital poverty, fair salaries and digital carbon footprint – topics that still surprise many business leaders.
ITIL® 4: Sustainability in Digital and IT is a professional guidance to help digital organizations start with sustainability.
The book follows steps of the ITIL continual improvement model. This is because sustainability activities should form a continuous journey, rather than being a one-off initiative. The model’s steps are:
- What is the vision?
- Where we are now?
- Where do we want to be?
- How do we get there?
- Take action
- Did we get there?
- How do we keep the momentum going?
Let’s delve into the first step: “What is the vision?
Digital technologies and sustainability
The first step is to define organization’s vision for sustainability, ensuring that it’s aligned with the overall business vision and supports the widely accepted sustainable development principles and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
To define the sustainability vision, you should know the major sustainability issues, especially those deeply connected with digital technologies:
Digital carbon footprint
It is hard to assess the carbon footprint of digital business, however, it is obvious that it's big. Digital technology causes 1.4% of overall global greenhouse gas emissions and 3.6% of electricity consumption. In addition, the number of consumer gadgets grows daily while data stored in the cloud causes as much pollution as travelling by aeroplane.
The more that digital becomes ubiquitous in our lives, the more digital inequality and exclusion appears because of age, lack of access to IT resources and networks – such as families sharing devices during Covid-19 – knowledge and money We have to take this into consideration when designing digital products and providing services.
According to a UNICEF and ITU report, 1.3 billion children between three and 17 years old do not have an internet connection at home. Digital companies may help to solve this challenge or make it worse.
We generate about 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste per year through televisions, phones, office equipment and laptops. But it’s not only about what to do with this amount of waste, but also how to avoid mining the Earth for precious metals needed for gadget production.
Other issues and concepts include sustainable consumption and production, responsible sourcing and general greenhouse gas emissions.
Conducting a materiality assessment
Organizations can't contribute to every digital sustainability issue at once. Instead, they should prioritize actions according to their business vision and capabilities. And a materiality assessment can help to do this.
The materiality assessment – one of the major tools in the ITIL 4: Sustainability in Digital and IT module – helps the organization “to define, agree and execute a sustainability strategy based on the organization’s sustainability vision and principles.”
It involves the process of identifying and assessing potential environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues that affect the business and stakeholders. It’s an important step in the definition of the sustainability vision and development of the sustainability strategy.
As a result of a materiality assessment, your company will be able to define opportunities, mitigate business risks, improve stakeholder engagement and ensure the integration of sustainability into your business strategy. It also helps to consider the organization’s position and influence within the organizational ecosystem.
Alongside the output of a matrix capturing the most important topics, a materiality assessment report may include material issues and risks identified across the organization’s supply chain and KPIs identified and adopted.
What’s the return?
For many organizations wrapped up in day-to-operations, it’s easy to postpone taking long term actions – not least when it comes to something on the scale of saving the planet and civilization.
It’s less avoidable when Governments and financial institutions compel businesses to act – and this has certainly increased.
But when the push to be more sustainable is based on recommendations, what is the incentive for organizations to respond?
Apart from thinking about what type of life on Earth we want our children to inherit, investing in sustainability also makes good business sense today: improved brand reputation, costs optimization and innovative solutions that may enable new markets and other benefits.
As well as reducing an organization’s exposure to unsustainable practices and supply chains, being a sustainable business today enhances your chances of recruiting and retaining top talent and keeping customers who choose to spend their money with suppliers that care about sustainable products and services.
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