Question

What is Sustainable Technology?

Answer

Gartner identified sustainable tech as one of the top technology trends of 2023. But what is it, and how do you know it when you see it?

And can we trust companies that talk the green talk but don’t necessarily follow through with actions? We suggest some ways to validate their claims.

What is Meant by ‘Sustainable’?

Gartner defines sustainability as a “framework of digital solutions that can enable environmental, social, and governance (ESG) outcomes for the enterprise and its customers.” The idea addresses the increasing pressure on corporations, government agencies, and other heavy data users to behave more responsibly as the new century unfolds.

Environmental needs, for example, can be met with lower-power solutions and greater use of recyclable materials. In contrast, social and governance solutions provide a more equitable distribution of digital products and services.

Sustainability can exist on a micro level, with individual devices drawing less energy but processing or storing more data, or it can reside on a macro level with greater coordination across platforms through more refined software and advanced analytics. Virtualization and the cloud, for example, provide far more efficient use of resources when they are optimized with load-balancing software and automated management stacks that shut down idle servers and provide real-time scaling of energy consumption to match the ebb and flow of typical workflows.

Often, these savings are minute in isolation but can produce significant results in the hyperscale environments of leading service providers like Amazon, Alphabet, and Meta.

READ MORE: Why a CTO Always Needs to Show Sustainability Leadership

How Does Technology Meet this Definition?

Sustainable technology can be achieved in several ways. Less reliance on fossil fuels is a top consideration at the moment, and data infrastructure can accomplish this through greater resource utilization, more efficient cooling mechanisms, improved data management, and more strategic development initiatives.

Equally important are the business and consumer products that the enterprise produces. By reorienting design protocols around ways that enable customers to meet their sustainability goals, organizations gain critical goodwill from the buying public, enhancing brand awareness and profitability.

Are There Any Sustainable Technology Development Programs in Place Today?

Many of today’s leading corporations have introduced measures to enhance sustainability, sometimes in novel or unexpected ways. Apple, for example, has committed to making its entire product line carbon-neutral by 2030, starting with the Apple Watch. The program incorporates everything from new materials to reducing manufacturing and shipping emissions.

Meanwhile, Ericsson hopes to drive greater efficiency in digital networking with products like the Radio 6646, which not only cuts energy consumption by 40 percent but replaces up to nine conventional radios to lessen the use of aluminum and other materials.

Elsewhere, organizations are turning to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain to identify inefficiencies of all kinds in IT infrastructure, business processes, supply chains, and other facets of the business model.

For instance, using trusted data within a blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) can recommend changes to the sourcing of raw materials, spot wasteful practices on the assembly line, and streamline logistics in packing, shipping, and distribution.

Meanwhile, intelligent technologies are already producing new materials and even new forms of physical matter that can replace many of the expensive and environmentally sensitive materials we use today, including wood, steel, and concrete.

How Can Organizations Be Sure a Tech Is Actually Sustainable — Not Just an Example of Greenwashing?

Numerous metrics are in place to gauge the merits of any solution. Still, in general, the rule of thumb is that if it lowers costs and increases productivity, it is likely to have a net positive impact on both the environment and the bottom line.

There will be a fair amount of greenwashing as the sustainable movement progresses, but the best way to spot it is to compare the new solution with the old. If the specs are the same or only slightly better, it’s best to look elsewhere.

That being said, the law of unintended consequences is ever-present, particularly regarding sourcing energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas are known polluters, and reducing emissions is critical these days.

Renewable solutions like wind, solar, and hydro generate less carbon, but their need for materials like lithium and rare earth elements, not to mention plastic, will likely impact the environment in other ways.

Will Companies Have to Make Choices Between Sustainable Solutions and Profitability or Market Expansion?

In most cases, no. The idea behind sustainability is that it not only provides an environmental or social benefit but an economic one as well. Sustainable tech is designed to lower costs and increase efficiency in manufacturing, distribution, and back-office operations like business analytics and development. Ideally, this should improve sales and boost revenue.

Technology is only as good as the people who run it, however, so any sustainable program will require a coordinated approach between acquiring the right technology and hiring the best talent. This is not always easy to do. In all likelihood, sustainable technology programs will encounter a broad array of snags and dead-ends. Hence, a commitment to improving all facets of the business model is the most critical aspect of sustainability. As long as there is a clear goal, all setbacks will likely be temporary at best.

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Arthur Cole
Technology Writer

Arthur Cole is a freelance technology journalist who has been covering IT and enterprise developments for more than 20 years. He contributes to a wide variety of leading technology web sites, including IT Business Edge, Enterprise Networking Planet, Point B and Beyond and multiple vendor services.