When it comes to sustainability and companies, older technologies are still new for achieving steady progress. Here are five areas that deserve a deeper dive

Sustainability and technology are in an ongoing ambivalent relationship, says the Institute of Technology Assessment in Vienna. While business tends to have a gung-ho attitude to implementing new technologies that drive economic growth and give them even a short-term market advantage, that cycle can be negative for environmental sustainability, and can produce unexpected social impacts.

Our lust for mobile devices and constant connectivity, for example, has created toxic waste in our landfills and toxic lakes at “rare earth” mineral mines in places such as Mongolia. Michael Tlusty, sustainable seafood researcher at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said in a blog post in May 2015 that it is a technology – artificial nitrogen fixation in soils via the Haber-Bosch process – that got us into the need to be sustainable in the first place, by boosting food production and population increases that have caused all of our modern challenges from air pollution to waste and climate change.

Ray Anderson, the late founder of carpet maker Interface who was renowned for his sustainability leadership, proposed that through technology we can actually reduce – rather than increase – our negative impacts on the environment and society.

We still seem to collectively believe that new technologies are necessary for productive workplaces, and we still pin our hopes on technology to solve our problems, most pointedly our need to stay in sustainable balance with our planet’s ecosystem.

While new, gee-whiz technologies suck up the most media attention, what’s really important, at least for sustainability performance, is widespread, mainstream deployment of technologies already on our shelves. So says Paul Hawke, who has helped fund Project Drawdown to map out the 100 best existing solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, and by extension, increase global sustainability.

So what, then, are the best technologies that companies can deploy or are already deploying to fulfil their self-professed goals to be more sustainable environmentally and socially? Let’s take a look.

1. Energy efficiency

The business case for energy efficiency is straightforward. If investing in energy efficiency is so economical, though, why don’t all business owners do it? It seems, says the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Colorado, that there’s a misalignment of incentives and market signals.

Though the cheapest watts of energy are those you don’t use – dubbed “negawatts” by RMI and others – companies are still sometimes hesitant to invest upfront in the projects that generate long-term savings, especially of energy. For example, companies put off energy retrofits and wait for big remodels or building of new campuses to consider energy-saving technologies. But energy costs are increasing ahead of inflation and are projected to continue to do so, says RMI. That makes “retrocommissioning” a worthwhile process – optimising boiler and chiller performance, for example, running heating, ventilation and air conditioning diagnostics, and improving building management systems.

High energy costs make retrocommissioning worthwhile

A well-designed building retrofit or renovation, according to RMI, can now bring a faster payback than ever, delivering 20-50% energy savings, and other, less quantifiable benefits such as employee retention and improved health. Where energy management can be daunting and expensive, services such as utility bill data capture is helping companies take better control of their energy use. For example, delivery giant UPS and media group Cox Enterprises use the utility data services provided by Urjanet, based in Atlanta, Georgia.

RMI says companies just embarking on energy efficiency efforts would do well to find an ESCO, (an energy services company) to ferret out the savings. RMI’s Matt Jungclaus says Walmart has “made some of the most substantial energy upgrades of any large company in the United States.” Walmart takes the long-term approach, Jungclaus says, to pursue deeper energy savings.

Even an easy measure such as switching to LEDs is something companies might delay, though it can reap big savings. Baldor Specialty Foods in New York, for example, recently installed 3,000 LED tube lamps and exterior lamps and reduced its lighting energy needs by 70% – bringing a 13-month payback.

Joe Kozlowicz, principal at Green House Data in Cheyenne, Wyoming, stresses that IT energy efficiency is one of the areas companies may overlook. Kozlowicz specifies a few strategies: looking at computer CPU utilisation rates in order to optimise server workloads; looking at greening server cooling, or “economiser” modes, which take outside air rather than refrigerants; and using virtualization.

“Virtualization,”iKozlowicz says, “is one of the cornerstones of cloud computing and basically splits all available computer resources into different virtual machines, which can be turned on and off at will.” Virtualizing 100 servers, Kozlowicz says, is roughly the equivalent of taking 82 cars off the street in terms of carbon footprint.

Optimising server workloads saves energy

Energy efficiency is also one of the best ways to tackle climate change reduction. In AT&T’s case, sustainability manager John Schulz says an ongoing project to swap old-style telephone switches for newer, more efficient models is one of the main strategies the company is using to reach its ambitious goal – achieving carbon savings that are 10 times the footprint of the company’s operations, by 2025. AT&T’s telephone switch swap-out has been under way since 2009 and thus far nearly a third of the almost 600 switches have been upgraded with more energy-efficient models or taken away altogether as software handles more of the previous hardware tasks.

Software group Adobe Systems has become one of the most energy-efficient big companies in the US. Adobe uses an energy conservation program known as STEM, which taps the power of big data [see below] and employs energy storage via backup batteries to optimize energy use at the company’s headquarters and other buildings – the company has already achieved carbon neutrality for internal North American operations.

2. Alternative energy

Alternative energy isn’t so alternative any more. One of the most popular pledges big companies are making in the wake of COP21 is to run their internal operations on 100% renewable energy. Just as in any other technology uptake for sustainability, the real gains are in widespread adoption. Following the signing of BMW, Coca-Cola Enterprises, International Flavors and Fragrances, Nordea Bank, Pearson and Swiss Post to the RE100 movement, 53 major companies have now committed to source 100% of their electricity from renewable sources.

Those companies’ purchases increase electricity demand from renewables by 0.4% globally – making only a small effect on global emissions. However, if all companies were to source all their electricity from renewable sources, global carbon emissions would be cut by between 10% and 15%. Ikea recently announced it now produces more energy than it consumes through a combination of combined heat and power, 20 wind farms, and nearly 800,000 solar panels.

Commercial solar power enjoyed a rebound in 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Large retailers, manufacturers, and grocery stores (companies with lots of rooftop) and tech companies such as Apple and Intel topped SEIA’s recent list of the 25 biggest installers. Solar installations are now equally an economic and sustainability boost for companies.

Solar installations are making money  

But RMI’s Jungclaus advises companies to consider efficiency before alternative power. “In average buildings negawatts are often cheaper than renewable electricity, [though] this balance is shifting as on-site solar PV and off-site renewable energy become cheaper,” he says.

3. Big data

Everybody is talking about big data, but finding real-life examples of companies that have harnessed its power, especially for sustainable good, is a challenge. Big data has some obvious applications in sustainability, especially to tap the power of supply chains to make small transformations that can collectively amount to large sustainable improvements. Big data combined with the right analytics can help companies figure out where changes are possible and promising. According to London-based environmental performance specialist Henry Le Fleming, financial services group PwC helped French fashion and luxury goods group Kering create an environmental profit and loss (EP&L) report from analytics and big data that covers all its brands (including Puma and Gucci).

Kering reduced its leather production impacts

Kering’s analysis had 2.2m data points, Le Fleming said in a blog post, and will help Kering see how to make smart changes. Kering discovered through the process that 2% of its total group impact and 29% of greenhouse gas emissions emanated from leather production, and the company subsequently bought 54,000 square meters of chrome-free leather to start to reduce that impact.

Big data isn’t only for big companies, though. Small sustainable apparel maker Reformation of Los Angeles created the RefScale, a life-cycle assessment of its clothing that uses some in-house and some industry data to attach an lifecycle assessment label to every fashion item it manufactures (in LA), showing how much water, emissions, and waste are generated and how that compares with industry standards.

One of the most promising areas for using big data for sustainable progress is in agriculture, not only for weather modelling but also to control water usage and other inputs, and for risk management. While this has most benefited agricultural giants such as Monsanto and DuPont, smaller farmers may also be able to gain as analytic/big data tools become available at lower cost. For example, Farm Logs, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, makes smartphone/desktop software to optimize operations through farm data analytics; a feature called Nitrogen Monitoring helps reduce nitrogen inputs by following nitrogen availability in soils on a daily basis.

4. Mobile

Technology proponents frequently cite mobile phones – from basic handsets to the latest iPhones – as excellent aids for the non-profits tackling big challenges, including poverty alleviation, health care and education delivery. There are also ways to use the global uptake of mobile phones to improve social sustainability in companies’ far-flung supply chains. Enter Laborlink, a project of the Good World Solutions non-profit organisation.

Laborlink is a platform that leverages phone technology to collect data and information that may typically be lost in the regular audits of suppliers’ working conditions. Workers’ mobile phones provide a free (by using missed-call callbacks), anonymous channel for data collection. To date, more than 200,000 workers have responded to Laborlink polls in 16 countries. “This is a core part of supply chain engagement,” says Good World Solutions co-founder and executive director Heather Franzese. “It allows companies to take the pulse of their suppliers’ work force on sensitive issues such as sexual harassment and verbal abuse, and to quantify workers’ experience, driving improvements in business and in social responsibility.”

Laborlink utilises worker's mobile phones

The beauty of Laborlink is that it doesn’t require worker literacy; questions can be formulated in multiple languages; and question sets are being standardized (the non-profit worked with global information and marketing company Nielsen) in order for companies to do benchmarking and trends analyses. Franzese said in countries such as China where the workforce is rapidly transitioning to smart phones, Good World is experimenting with using a platform similar to Whatsapp to deliver surveys. Yet she adds that Laborlink is not dependent on specialized technology. Companies such as Marks & Spencer, Vodaphone and Walt Disney are receiving data from Laborlink; the programme is on track to reach one million workers with its targeted surveys in the next two years.

“There are advantages to keeping it low tech,” Franzese says. “We meet workers where they are at with the technology that’s already in their hands. With [Laborlink] it’s also possible to have two-way communication and push information back to them – our goal is closing the loop through follow up and accountability checks.”

5. Internet of things

The internet of things (IoT) remains more new than old, though it’s become practically impossible to ignore the buzz this idea is generating. Sensors will be the “eyes and ears” of a totally interconnected future world, say the pundits, in which billions of things (6.4bn things at the end of next year, technology research group Gartner says) magically enable a convergence of appliances, data and smart analysis.

According to Google, innovation on the IoT will lead to productivity benefits and cost savings that will outweigh the extra power needs of all the sensors and all the “things”. A chain of sensor-enabled grocery stores might monitor the lights, refrigerators, and heating and cooling systems to reduce waste and spoilage, for example. Sensors in cars can already relay traffic and air emissions data; and companies with lots of real estate can more accurately control buildings’ inventories and security systems, as well as lighting and theromstats. All of these, says Gartner’s Bettina Tratz-Ryan, have one thing in common: “the ability to leverage data to make real-time changes toward a more sustainable outcome”.

Sensors will be the “eyes and ears” of an interconnected future

Intel and Dell are among the IT providers already selling IoT solutions – software systems that collect the data from any sensor-ready devices and analyses it to extract meaningful information for business processes. Right now, though, IoT is at the proof-of-concept stage. There are some small early adoptions that give a glimpse of the future – General Motors using sensors to monitor climate conditions for vehicle painting; Schneider Electric’s network of sensor-enabled, inter-connected weather stations to improve weather forecasting. But for the IoT to influence corporate responsibility, it has to reach critical mass, and we aren’t there yet.

Leverage data to make real-time changes

In fact, the internet of things clearly demonstrates the ongoing push-pull between technology’s good and bad effects, since it promises unproved long-term efficiency gains at short-term economic costs. And the providers of the IoT are currently taking that age-old gamble of “build it and they will come”.

AT&T’s assistant vice-president of sustainability operations, John Schulz, says: “With the IoT there are a lot of open questions. However, we think it’s going to move fast. Connection is the critical piece, and when the pieces come together we’ll have connected homes, connected workplaces, and connected transportation and even more. We think it’s going to be a great enabler, and we’re going to stretch for it.”

csr trends  sustainability  global emissions  Carbon emissions  solar energy  renewables 

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