Gartner: how digital sustainability can drive ESG goals

By Kate Birch
The tools for supporting digital transformation can be used to expand your ethical impact and sustainability, says Gartner’s Research VP Bettina Tratz-Ryan

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments, which were discussed during the Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo in EMEA earlier this month, have become conventional standards for all socially mindful companies. These are also used by many investors to measure the ethical impact and sustainability of potential investments.

The latest addition to this collection of values is digital sustainability – however, you may ask, what is it and how does it apply to a company’s overall ESG goals?

In principle, digital sustainability harnesses tools for digital transformation, such as enhanced connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT), to support sustainable business operations and improve the environment. However, with the internet accounting for around 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it can be a complex area to approach. Fortuitously, there are already some well-established, practical examples of how it can be successful.

For instance, by optimising energy use with the help of IoT connectivity and artificial intelligence (AI), smart building technologies can help building managers reduce the carbon footprint of parts of our built environment. Big data analytics can support and strengthen social safety nets that might otherwise be unable to identify, reach and serve all the potential beneficiaries.

The issue is identifying how to use technology to solve a problem or to strengthen an already present solution.

Harnessing digital sustainability

A good first step to harnessing digital sustainability is to recognize what should impact your strategy. The list is extensive, from human rights and climate change, to biodiversity, digital ethics, and health equity. The key is finding out how these issues influence your business and stakeholders so you can prioritise your efforts.

Obviously, none of these issues are simple, so you will likely need to adopt a new way of thinking. If you try to increase sustainability without specific ambitions or goals in mind, you are doomed to fail.

Digital sustainability requires addressing specific issues with problem-specific solutions, which could include leveraging information technology (IT), operational technology (OT) and engineering technology (ET), as well as non-technical innovations.

By developing a shared understanding of the fundamentals of digital sustainability among senior executives, your business can prioritise how they develop and deploy the technologies they need. It is also important for CIOs and other senior IT staff to meet specific ESG goals related to the sustainability of IT infrastructure and services.

Driving delivery and meeting goals

There is a collection of fields that IT professionals need to keep in mind – these include supporting energy efficiency, the management of e-waste, the use of paperless transactions, overall system efficiency and supply chain logistics. There are also several factors that can help evaluate overall IT sustainability, such as the number of devices per employee and the use of cloud storage.

It is also important that these steps not be taken in isolation. IT professionals need to work in tandem with executives across a business unit in order to promote joint initiatives on important matters.

That said, it’s also essential to establish areas of ownership for each initiative to maximise efficiency. IT might manage digital technology and worker safety, for example; marketing could take control of environmental justice and community engagement; and it makes sense for the supply chain division to manage a business’ responsible sourcing and carbon footprint.

Bear in mind, having a ‘sustainability tsar’ won’t guarantee success; getting results will depend on ensuring executives are dedicated to implementing change.

It is also possible to apply digital technologies to address issues such as packaging waste. For example, reusable transit packaging can provide location, condition, and other data, while materials informatics can identify ways to safely – and securely – reduce packaging material. Sensors and RFID tags can trace a product’s origins, while a circular economy platform can signal when to refurbish a product. Significantly, IoT connectivity and remote diagnostics, combined with artificial intelligence, can indicate the need for preventive maintenance.

Keep track of your achievements

All these achievements need to be tracked and logged so it’s essential to establish a data platform to gather and analyse ESG-related information from individual operations as well as the entire value chain. Implementing an integrated set of analytical, reporting and business application tools can provide the necessary hindsight, insight, and foresight to ensure that digital sustainability plays a central role in delivery on ESG commitments.

Bettina Tratz-Ryan is Research Vice-President at Gartner, specialising in intelligent urban ecosystem research.

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