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Can the future of work be digitally savvy and carbon-friendly?

As companies work out what office space and digital infrastructure they now need in this new world of work, it’s time to analyse how this is impacting their carbon footprint.

Companies embracing remote and hybrid working are already counting the carbon emissions saved by cutting down on commuting and office space, with recent figures like these from the Emerging Science Journal revealing that 98% of an employee carbon footprint comes from commuting.

Yet business leaders looking to reduce their organisation’s carbon footprint shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that’s one giant box ticked for them. A greater shift towards remote working goes hand in hand with an increased reliance on digital tools and resources, which, while potentially less visible, release significant carbon emissions too.

The carbon footprint of our devices, the internet and the systems to support both account for around 4% of global greenhouse emissions and are tipped to double by 2025, according to this latest infographic from Climate Care, which breaks down where it all comes from. It also offers tips for individuals, like cutting down on unnecessary emails, dimming monitors and shutting down computers when not in use.

Understanding the new carbon footprint

Because the more digital we become at work, the more servers that are needed, consuming more energy, points out Paul Crewe, chief sustainability officer at global sustainability specialists  Anthesis. Anthesis works with businesses like Costa Coffee, Tesco and Gap on all aspects of sustainability and has set an ambition to eliminate three gigatonnes of carbon emissions on their transition to Net Zero.

Anthesis, a certified B Corp, also uses the Moneypenny virtual receptionist service, which in turn helps it reduce its own carbon footprint across its five UK offices.

“We’re working with organisations that have made the decision to reduce their office space, because of their new remote working policies. We’ve helped them understand their new footprint, including the average carbon footprint of a worker operating out of a home environment, so we can then start to incorporate that within carbon calculations,” says Crewe.

“We’ll continuously review and monitor those who are no longer working full-time in an office environment to understand the true sustainability impact of the change, and the impact that digital solutions are having.”

Making the right decisions on data storage

One area that can be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is data stored on servers and in the cloud, which Crewe feels need to become greener to offset the increased demand for capacity. That’s why UK-based web hosting company Krystal launched its Katapult platform as a green alternative to big industry names like Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.

Krystal is fully powered by renewable energy and plants 100,000 trees a month and have now planted over 1 million this year (at a cost to the business of £12,500 each time). Contrastingly, Microsoft Azure has set a target to be powered by 100% renewable energy by 2025 while Google Cloud plans to be carbon-free by 2030.

Krystal founder and CEO Simon Blackler believes that businesses now have a unique chance to go beyond “greenwashing” and demonstrate real environmental leadership by making more sustainable choices in the purchasing, supplier and partnership decisions they make.

“Remote working obviously saves the associated pollution of commuting, but one of the big areas that businesses might miss is their cloud usage. The big companies aren’t doing a good enough job of making sure their power is renewably sourced or offsetting their impact. But in the near future people won’t want to go with a cloud provider that isn’t renewably powered,” he argues.

Blackler is optimistic that the tide is moving in this direction, with more large corporations being taken to task by increasingly eco-conscious shareholders demanding not just profits but climate-positive change.

He explains: “The environmental impact of business decisions has traditionally not even been a consideration compared to profit or convenience. With the undeniable evidence that our behaviour is changing our world for the worse, there’s a growing realization that we as a civilization need to do more than just become “net zero”.

“Net zero” will take too long to realize and at best leave the planet dangerously hot. For the future we’d like to live in, businesses need to become “Regenerative”, that is to say they take out more CO2 than they produce.”

The role of employee engagement

And those environmental advocates could be a company’s own employees, which is why carbon footprint tracker company Pawprint emphasises the power of staff engagement when it comes to reducing emissions.

“One of our clients said that without engaging employees, nothing else would happen in their company. If everyone understands what makes an impact, they are more willing to accept – and in many cases demand – sometimes uncomfortable changes,” says Christian Arno, founder and CEO of Pawprint, which works with companies like Brewdog and Standard Life Aberdeen.

“We know a lot of our clients are also very concerned about attracting and retaining talent, particularly younger talent, if they are not genuinely part of the solution when it comes to climate change. We’re seeing our customers offer to support employees switching to renewable energy sources because that now impacts the company’s own carbon footprint because of remote working.”

As the line between home and work blurs further, Arno, Blackler and Crewe expect to see more companies increase their understanding of the relationship between remote working and their carbon footprint – and go to further lengths to reduce this.

About the author

MaryLou Costa is a freelance journalist who specialises in covering the future of work, sustainability, innovation, technology, startups, marketing, and more. Her work is often found in The Guardian, The Observer, Business Insider, Raconteur, Sifted, Digiday, UNLEASH, Marketing Week.

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