Green IT: what is digital sobriety in business?

23 March 2023

Green IT, everything you need to know about digital sobriety in business!

In the context of the digital age, it is important to remember that digital technologies and services are not only virtual and rely on physical media (terminals, servers, etc.). All our activities related to digital technologies, although they seem immaterial because of the actions they allow, imply an environmental cost. This impact is particularly important in companies, where the scale of the digital enterprise is constantly increasing and is an integral part of business strategies. However, while digital technology is experiencing unparalleled growth (+9% of energy consumed per year), it is subject to the same physical constraints as the rest of our systems: extraction of raw materials, manufacturing and delivery processes that are heavy in terms of resource use, energy consumption, etc. It is therefore the social responsibility of companies to limit their digital impact and to move towards sober digital technology (Green IT), or at least to think about it more carefully.

What is digital sobriety (or Green IT)?

Digital sobriety is an approach that aims to reduce the environmental impact of digital technology by limiting its use. In a company, this means analysing its activity and business needs in order to build a digital system that reduces and optimises the consumption of natural and energy resources to be more in line with environmental constraints.

Digital sobriety, or Green IT, is achieved on two levels: on the one hand, it involves limiting digital activities (use) but also their support (equipment production).

According to the diagram above, the production of media is responsible for almost half of the final energy consumption of digital. In addition to this energy consumption, there is the extraction and exploitation of raw materials, electronic manufacturing processes, delivery to users, etc. In the case of a corporate smartphone, for example, the production stage is responsible for 80% of the carbon emissions in its life cycle. Today, the ever-increasing use of digital equipment in business is not compatible with our finite resources. It is therefore up to companies to move towards a more responsible digital environment by managing their technological choices and their Green IT.

What practices for a more responsible digital environment?

First of all, it is important to have a systemic approach. Each digital activity or medium is only one element of a system whose various components must be taken into account: energy costs, consumption of resources in production, maintenance, management of digital skills, development and management of software, impact on other activities and infrastructures that are linked to it, etc. This systemic approach implies multi-sector decision-making, to be carried out jointly with different players and professions: CSR, QSE, IT and ISD, Digital, Purchasing, Technical Management, etc. All these departments must participate in digital and responsible purchasing decisions in order to have a global strategy and not move forward inefficiently in silos. A global understanding of the digital system and its impacts is an essential step in ensuring consistency between digital choices, the company’s objectives and uses, and the challenges of this century.

Secondly, energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically reduced. To do this, it is necessary to manage its technological choices in order to minimise their environmental impact while maintaining its essential contributions. The need to which each IT equipment deployment responds must be questioned, and once implemented, it is possible to optimise the carbon footprint of the company’s IT fleet: by opting for a maintenance contract to repair rather than replace its equipment, by having its IT equipment taken back at the end of its useful life so that it can be reused, or by completing its fleet with reconditioned equipment to avoid producing new equipment.

To conclude, deploying digital sobriety means steering technological choices to move from carefree to resilient management. The increase in CO2 emissions linked to digital technology continues to rise (from 4% in 2019, it could reach 8% in 2025), and the growth of digital technology is limited by the finite resources that are exploited for its production and use. More than a choice, digital sobriety is an emergency that companies must take into account in their global strategies, by involving the different sectors and businesses in their decisions. 

Sources: “Deploying digital sobriety” The Shift Project, October 2020