Why it is ok to ask questions and push for change

What does [ your favourite app ] run on?

Turns out the internet and all the digital products and services within it do not run on fairy dust and copious amounts of coffee. So what DO they run on?

Electricity, of course. And a lots of it.

Quoting from a September 2019 article from Fortune.com:
Today, data centers consume about 2% of electricity worldwide; that could rise to 8% of the global total by 2030, according to a study by Anders Andrae, who researches sustainable information and communications technology for Huawei Technologies Ltd (Source: Nature.com)”.

The carbon emissions linked to these data centres are substantial: “Data centres contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions, whereas the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem as a whole — under a sweeping definition that encompasses personal digital devices, mobile-phone networks and televisions — accounts for more than 2% of global emissions. That puts ICT’s carbon footprint on a par with the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel (Source: Nature.com).”

It’s easy to overlook the environmental impact of the digital services and products we use due to the large degree of separation between production and consumption. Just as we don’t give much thought to where the rocket in our sandwich was grown and picked, we rarely know whether the energy powering our favourite apps or online tools comes from renewables or fossil fuels.

Just like the puppy at the top of this post, we are curious by nature so we decided to start “digging” for answers (pardon the dog pun) and were able to uncover a lot with little effort. Some of it was good, some of it bad and perhaps we’ll always struggle with finding a sustainable option for all parts of our workflow—but it doesn’t mean we won’t at least try.

If you’re nodding along while reading this, great! The power is in the numbers and we believe that by collectively asking questions and advocating for greener practices we can change where things are headed. So, how do you go about it?

Dig around and see what you can find

First off, fire up your search engine (have you tried Ecosia.org yet?) and do some research into the app/website’s sustainability policy. Good keywords to try are “[name]+sustainability”“[name]+impact” or perhaps “[name]+environment”.

With a bit of luck and good SEO implementation on their side, you may land on a dedicated page on the app’s official website telling you all about their sustainability strategy and mitigation measures currently in place. You may also find articles and press releases telling you what you want to know. In which case you’re likely to be pleased with what you’ve uncovered as this type of scenario usually occurs when a company already has a sustainable business framework in place. Good times!

Reach out and ask questions

Ok, so what if you are not able to dig out any useful information? Well, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Creating and delivering online products and services is a complex task which tends to absorb a lot of a team’s focus. It’s then easy for other things to get overlooked and take the backseat: like including sustainability information within a content strategy.

Your next step is to reach out and ask. Whatever your preferred comms channel may be, there is no harm in asking how something you use is made, powered and managed. We’ve been doing this for tools and services we’re already using as well as for new possible additions to our toolbox.

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Advocate for change

Whether you received good or bad news in terms of how sustainable a product is, you don’t have to stop there. In fact, there’s more that can be done to improve things and lay the foundations for a more circular and ethical future.

If things aren’t great, raise awareness and ask for change
Most teams are happy to let the users in on their product roadmap and provide ways to influence its direction. Posting requests and suggestions in dedicated “Wishlists” or “Changelogs” can be an easy way to make it known that sustainability matters to you. “Feedback” forms are another good place to get your message through.

If there’s room for improvement, volunteer suggestions
Sustainability does not happen over-night, it’s a step process and a collective effort. You can play a role in influencing how quickly things change by sharing ideas and tips. Small reminder: no change is too small (not even when it comes to the workplace TP supply!)

If things are pretty good, encourage visibility and transparency
It’s important to have access to the full picture when choosing among available options. And online products and services should be no exception. Product teams need to be vocal and transparent about their current sustainability efforts. Sharing information about it helps with accountability, might increase their visibility and, hopefully, inspire others to follow suit.

Your opinion matters

Today’s customer demands shape the services of tomorrow — so fire up your email and reach out to product teams all over, I have the feeling they will be happy to listen.

To get you started, feel free to use and/or adapt this template message we’ve been using:

Hello [name],

I’m trying to switch to a more sustainable lifestyle and business model and to do this I’m mapping the environmental footprint of my supply chains. To help me do this I was hoping you could tell me a bit more about your sustainability strategy and future plans. For instance, do you use green hosting, run on renewables, use carbon offsets or have a composting/recycling strategy in the office? If not, do you have plans to implement any of these soon?

Looking forward to hearing from you.

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