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Sustainability in a world of data - why sustainability is more than just being carbon-free

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks January 9, 2023
A glut of research studies around the topic of sustainability exposes some alarming attitudes.

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Sustainability is most usually associated with energy consumption which, when it comes to IT, is in turn most commonly associated with data centers. In practice, however, it has an impact on a wide range of related issues, ranging from which type of printer is the best option to the almost metaphysical of how and why is data?

Vendors across the board are just waking up to the possible implications, for good or ill, that their products and services may offer when it comes to sustainability, energy consumption and measurable carbon footprints.

Arguing the toss about the sustainable benefits of types of printer may seem a bit prosaic, but there are many businesses where such devices play a central role, and the choice can make a real difference in corporate energy consumption and carbon footprint.

For example, printer maker, Epson, has recently conducted some research on the subject which suggests that less than a fifth (19%) of printers in commercial settings throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa are business inkjet technology. At first sight this figure is hardly surprising, as inkjet supplies have a long-standing reputation for being short-lived under extensive usage, while the ink is often claimed to be amongst the most expensive commodities, gramme for gramme, in the known world.

The other side of this coin, however, is the less known fact that inkjet printing offers a potentially huge energy saving opportunity versus the laser printers more commonly seen as the natural option for commercial applications. According to the research findings, some 62% of respondents indicated concern about the energy use of printers given the increases in energy costs. 

According to Epson, this is a good example of the maxim of exploiting marginal improvements. Richard Wells, head of office print sales UK&I at Epson, is quoted as saying: 

In the context of spiralling energy costs, it's vital that organisations take advantage of every opportunity open to them to reduce expenditure. A single printer might not save much money alone, but a whole fleet of business printers could deliver significantly with a shift to inkjet from laser. Cutting energy use in this way will also dramatically reduce the volume of CO2 emissions produced, helping to address concerns around sustainability.

It's that gorilla again

One of the key issues issues CIO are going to have to address concerns that big gorilla, data, and not just in terms of how to manage its exponential growth, but also how to question where, how and why that growth continues in the first place. For example, the USGS (US Geological Service) Data Management Website has recently updated its guidance, best practices, and tools for data management, driven by the underlying goal of stopping companies wasting their data budget.

There are several key contributors to irrelevant and wasteful data growth, such as endless duplication of files across multiple user systems – even more prevalent with the growth in home working. Perhaps less understood, is the creation of dark – or just dusty – data. This is the data that has no definable value to a company in terms of generating any value to its insight into the future, its ability to optimize its operations, or generate an additional dime on the bottom line.  

Estimates of the presence of dark data vary, but it is reasonable to assume that there are very few companies that do not have some. The typical range suggests that between 40% and 90% of all the data held by a company is effectively 'dark’. In most cases the word 'dusty’ is probably better as the data held is useless, valueless and only contributing to a possibly huge carbon footprint.

It can also be 'dark’ in a more threatening sense. USGS suggests the poor management which allows dark data to accumulate can also allow it creep into decision-making processes, creating misinformed decisions that negatively impact strategy and overall data risk. The likely result, according to market research company Gartner will be that such companies suffer non-compliance risks, financial liabilities, and security breaches.

This does suggest that an increasing number of businesses could benefit from investigating the potential of Virtual Desktop Integration (VDI) and its ability to provide centralized dispersion, where data and its processing is centralized and therefore as secure as possible, yet virtualized images of every user's interactions with their current data and compute functions are distributed in real time at whatever remote location they are in and on whatever remote device they are using.

Better data management, coupled with VDI, could not only produce a more secure and compliant data resource but also a significant reduction in the volume of data any company is obliged to store. And volume equals energy to keep it alive and accessible, which in turn means a reduced carbon footprint and more sustainable operating environment.

A growing range of other opportunities

Once sustainability is raised as an issue, of course, a far wider range of subjects can fall under that umbrella, and while companies now face the need to quantify and justify their energy consumption and carbon footprints, the area of opportunities in sustainability is widening. For example, companies could/should now be taking steps to help save the planet by adding the value of Nature to their Annual Accounts.

That, at least, is the view of Professor of Accounting, Governance and Society at the Alliance Manchester Business School, Paolo Quattrone, and Associate Professor of Performance and Sustainability Measurement at the Accounting Department of Bocconi University, Milan, Ariela Caglio. This would allow nature to be a visible, key stakeholder and to have both a voice and value.  

The pair have identified four changes they see as important. These are: 

  • An income statement of Value-Added for Nature (VAN) to force all stakeholders to pay attention to how corporate activity relates nature. This would enable companies to analyse their supply chains in a more meaningful way and so help them reach UN SDG goals.
  • Auditing, where there would be far more clear and defined boundaries between stakeholders.
  • Corporate Governance based on a more dispersed ownership that bypasses the belief in the market as a governance mechanism.
  • Fund for Nature contribution on the balance sheet, which the pair see as generating debate on its use by managements that are accountable to stakeholders in the usual way.  

It is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that, in a sustainable world, best business practices in areas such as accounting and corporate governance should now become about a great deal more than just money and legality in the here and now, and rather our overall contribution to – or against – the whole.

As can be seen, sustainability is a current cause of a glut in surveys and research, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) joining the throng with research that has fed its decision to focus on a three-pronged strategic roadmap into the future. These are hybrid-by design, data-first and, of course, sustainability.

Its research adds to the identification of a growing reality, when it comes to sustainability, that the levels of general knowledge, understanding and maturity about the issue are still pretty woeful across the board, and that this is now becoming a specific hindrance in the growth and development of businesses. In a sentence it stops them advancing the application of environmental sustainability, thus contributing to the problem, and it stops them growing sales. 

The YouGov-conducted research shows that the data maturity level – marking the ability of a typical organisation to create value from data - is just 2.6 on a five-point, HPE-developed scale. Level 1 maturity, referred to as data anarchy, is where data silos are isolated and not systematically analysed to create insights or outcomes. Level 5 is termed data economics, where an organization can strategically leverage data to drive outcomes. 

Only three percent of the firms surveyed reached that highest maturity level, while 14% were still on Level 1. The majority are still in the lower middle range, with 29% Level 2 (data reporting), and 37% on level 3 (data insights). The remaining 17% made it to Level 4 (data centricity). Perhaps the most telling statistic in the survey was that, while 13% of organisations say that having a data strategy is a key part of their corporate strategy, a sadly unsurprising 48% say their organization allocates either no budget for data initiatives or only occasionally funds data initiatives via the IT budget.

These figures are reinforced by an SAP study on sustainability planning by users which, under the circumstances is at the least worrying. This poll divided respondents into three categories of attitude in terms of response they made. These are pretty self-explanatory: the nows, the imminentlys, and the laters.

The nows, those that see environmental sustainability as already financially important, represent a pretty small number at 17%, while the imminentlys – those that think they have five years grace yet to run before doing anything – comprise a whopping 61%. As the SAP statement accompanying the numbers put it: 

It's surprising (and quite concerning) to see that 61% of survey respondents believe sustainability will have no impact on their business in five years or more.

The remaining 22% are in the laters category, and as SAP put it:

Perhaps the laters are waiting until carbon taxes, supply chain regulations, and other legal requirements start to affect their bottom line years from now.” 

Given the coming together of a number of interacting factors – that carbon footprints continue to head in the wrong direction, that a number of economies are in recession and quite likely to stay that way for a while, and that energy prices will still need government support for some time (and will go up if the support is removed) – this lack of new management thinking, planning, or activity across the majority of IT users, not just about data, but operations as well,  is only going to make the sustainability records of all those businesses worse. 

This will also be happening at a time when having a good, and improving, sustainability story as part of a company’s `brand image’ is becoming increasingly crucial. The lack of it will make selling at all more of a struggle. In short, many businesses may find they do not have enough feet to shoot holes in.

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