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Will digital sustainability change the world for the better?

Your first thought may be ‘what is digital sustainability’? And that would be fair. In these strange lockdown times, the digital world is merging with our real lives; webinars have replaced face-to-face networking, TV presenters are coming live from their living rooms and Zoom nights in are very in. In turn our new, digitally-driven lives are creating a tangible, positive impact on the environment.

What’s the bigger picture for the impact of digital advancements on the environment? As part of The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival, I tuned in to an interview with Mike Penrose of The Sustainable Group discussing what digital sustainability is. The short answer? Something that has the potential to save us all.

Sometimes it feels like huge corporations don’t have the environment’s interests at heart, when in reality they are the ones who can make the biggest impact. But, the tide is turning. They key thing – as Mike sees it – is that they are finally starting to see that being sustainable is profitable. When Unilever removed all their unsustainable brands they saw 60% higher profits. You can’t ignore those numbers.

But, what’s the role of digital in this behaviour change? Here are four key areas where technology has the power to change the impact of business and industry on our planet.

The Internet of Things

IoT comes in many forms. From app-operated lightbulbs in your home to intelligent parts tracking in aerospace factories (such as the tech our friends at Pathfindr have pioneered). The more ‘stuff’ we can track, the more efficiencies we can make across a whole business or industry. Smart irrigation systems are already in use, ensuring crops get exactly the water and nutrients they need.  Yachts taking part in the Clipper Round the World Race are fitted with sensors to measure ocean acidification, reaching places never tested before, and providing a wealth of data. These smart processes will result in less wastage in cost, time and energy – and more data to help us make even smarter decisions in the future.


Put simply, Blockchain is a digital trail of every transaction made. In the near future, Mike believes, consumers will be able to scan a code on a product and see exactly how it has been produced, and where it has come from. There will be nowhere to hide for manufacturers claiming to have green credentials. Even better, change isn’t as far away as you might think. Street markets in developing countries like Chad already use mobile payments over cash, as standard, enabling blockchain entry at grassroots level.

3D Printing

We’ve all seen videos of houses being constructed by 3D printers. We’ve also seen the way 3D printers across the country – whether they’re housed in large universities or peoples’ sheds –  are being used to create PPE for the NHS. Quietly, the technology is becoming more mainstream, meaning goods can be more easily produced where they are needed, reducing manufacturing airmiles. Goods can be made in large or small batches, meaning corporations don’t necessarily have the edge being able to produce items at scale. Also, 3D printing produces little to no wastage, meaning manufacturing can be more efficient than ever.


What we are experiencing now is challenging, but it is also forcing us to change ingrained behaviours. Remote working and limited – or no – travel is currently the norm. Does this mean a post-Coronavius world will be entirely virtual? Well, no. For starters, humans are very bad at changing long-held behaviours. Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson makes the point that during the BSE crisis of 1996, 60% of brits claimed they’d never eat British beef again. Yet, by 2000 consumption was back to normal, and has carried on rising. When we emerge from lockdown – for better or worse – there will probably be an explosion in social events and shopping.

However, hopefully we will take some learnings from this intense period. We now know that yes, video conferencing can work, and flexible working from home can be effective. Perhaps our desire for international – or even national – travel will be reduced. This all means fewer vehicles on the roads, or in the skies, and a reduction in carbon emissions

So, what do businesses need to learn from this?

  • Understand the impact – good and bad – your products have on the planet
  • Use technology to measure this, and compare with other organisations
  • People are consuming with purpose and this won’t change
  • Sustainability will make money – there is a $12 trillion opportunity

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