Zoe Amar: Why charities need to take a sustainable approach to tech

If our digital evolution is to be sustainable, we need to understand the impact that our technology use is having on the planet

During Digital Leaders Week I have been keeping a close eye on the trends everyone’s talking about. 

Covid-19 has, unsurprisingly, been a recurring theme at all the events I have attended. Another session highlighted an issue we should have on our radar as a sector: how our tech habits could fuel climate change. 

I attended "What is your technology carbon footprint?" (hosted by the charity the Royal Institute of British Architects) because I have been concerned about the role of digital in climate change since I read that almost 4 per cent of all carbon emissions are from digital technologies, according to a 2019 study by the Paris-based think tank The Shift Project.

Shockingly, this is more than the pre-pandemic aviation industry, which accounts for 2.5 per cent of carbon emissions. Riba decided to bring together a group of leaders from all sectors at the event to tackle this challenge together. 

Many charities have shifted to working from home and developed digital services during the pandemic. This is positive news. 

However, if this digital evolution is to be sustainable we need to understand the impact that our technology use is having on the planet. 

This is a new area for many organisations but I predict that it will become a priority for us all as we take further action on climate change. At the event, I learned how charities can tackle this issue. 

Keep it simple

My children’s primary school has taught them that they should "reduce, reuse and recycle" to protect the environment. Xavier Verne of The Shift Project used his presentation to argue that we should follow this principle in technology too. 

Technology embodies a relentless focus on improvement, but do you really need a higher spec smartphone right now? “Even if you use your phone or laptop for one to two years more that will help lessen the environmental impact,” says Verne. 

If your organisation is at a stage where it needs to retire devices, then consider passing them on.

This was one of the actions that delegates committed to at the event. If you have spare laptops or phones, I recommend donating them via Nominet’s Reboot project. They can help you to pass them on to schools, community organisations, and others who can use them to get online.

Giving staff the tools to gather data is key

Several of the speakers recommended that organisations need to establish a baseline for their tech carbon footprint.

Jemma Waters, head of responsible transformation at Lloyds Banking Group, told delegates that her team are looking at developing toolkits for colleagues who are product owners so they can calculate their carbon footprints. Lloyds is planning to share the key learnings from this process, so watch this space. 

Get the issue on the board agenda

As with everything else in digital, we need charity leaders to commit to action if we’re going to make significant progress on it.

Senior management teams and boards have a lot on their plate during the pandemic, so how can we avoid this being pigeonholed as a niche issue? 

Avril Chester, interim executive director of data and technology at Riba says: “We recommend looking at the impact of technology and digital in relation to the bigger picture of efficiency, sustainability and innovation in your organisation.” 

Once you have engaged your leadership team, help them follow through with tangible actions. Among the next steps agreed by delegates at the event were to write into organisational policies the environmental impact of their devices by March 2021. 

Carbon footprint measurement would also be built into business KPIs, reporting on it regularly along with other business performance indicators. 

The role of tech in climate change is a shared problem across sectors, and if your charity is looking at sustainability then this is an issue you need to consider. 

Chester and her team at Riba will be developing further campaigns, and hope to start a movement to help solve this problem together.

Keep an eye out for what they do next.


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