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Achieve sustainability through digital transformation in 2020
January 16, 2020
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This post is sponsored by Philip Morris International.

Forward-thinking companies have to start thinking about their technology and sustainability goals in tandem. That’s because technology offers a myriad of ways to improve a business’s sustainability practices. They range in magnitude, from inexpensive sensors that reduce energy consumption in buildings to smart manufacturing equipment that streamlines operations.

Yet it is not a given that technology will always be good for sustainability. Rapid adoption of devices has led to a waste problem of global magnitude, for example. As companies and individuals alike discard unwanted phones and computers and upgrade to newer ones, electronic waste has piled up in landfills in emerging economies.

To prevent such downsides, it’s important that companies approach the adoption of any new technology by evaluating its sustainability impact: Will it reduce or increase energy usage? Will it streamline supply chains? How does it impact greenhouse gas emissions? At the same time, as businesses set sustainability goals, they should look for ways that technology can help achieve them faster and at a lower cost.

Consider the relationship between technology and sustainability in three ways:

There are clear-cut cases where technology can improve sustainability practices. Internet of things technology such as smart HVAC and lighting systems can result in big savings for companies while reducing their overall energy usage. A building energy management system can also include sensors on waste bins so that pickup is only triggered when they are full, rather than at set-time periods, reducing labor costs and streamlining processes. Smart technology can improve sustainability in manufacturing as well, such as when sensors are placed on manufacturing equipment to alert staff to maintenance needs so that machines are replaced less often.

There are instances where technology has benefits, but requires judicious use to be sustainable. 3D printing holds the potential to localize fabrication processes, cutting down on emissions from transporting parts made in external facilities. It can also make manufacturing replacement parts more efficient and make it easier to repurpose materials that might otherwise have been discarded, cutting down on cost and waste. But 3D printing could just as easily lead to more waste, say if a company repeatedly prints renderings that are imperfect and discards them. Thus, it’s important for businesses to put processes in place that ensure responsible use of such technologies so that they yield sustainability benefits and do not undermine them.

There are ways that technology can also hurt sustainability. Just as e-waste is a problem, so is the increased energy usage triggered by the growing number of servers and devices enterprises are using as they adopt tech tools. Big data processing, machine learning and artificial intelligence are all increasing the resources that companies consume. Thus it is important to evaluate any new technology for its carbon impact and to look for ways to source green energy, such as solar or wind, that can mitigate its effect on overall emissions.

Finally, as businesses consider ways to improve their sustainability practices through technology, they should review the full lifecycle of the goods they sell, from looking for opportunities to simplify supply chains to reviewing how end users discard or recycle their products. By implementing technology that places them in a circular economy – where resources are continually used and waste is eliminated – companies ensure they are operating in a manner that is sustainable not just for themselves but the entire ecosystem.

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