What’s the environmental footprint of your technology use? There’s no app for that.

Josh Hatch, Director of Sustainability Analytics, BrightworksBy Joshua Hatch

Director of Sustainability Analytics

Are you big into social media? Can you hardly wait for the next iPhone? And are you having trouble reconciling the environmental implications of our ever-connected society? You are not alone. If you tune into the latest environmental data from large technology firms like Apple, Google and Facebook, then you could develop whiplash from confusing numbers and competing claims.

The environmental footprint of your social and technological habits is hard to understand because most of the supply chain and infrastructure of technology companies is hidden in the “cloud” or in contract manufacturing towns. It is also hard to make sense of the net environmental impact these companies present, both positive and negative. Should we be concerned that the data centers that power all digital services are one of, if not the, fastest growing sectors of our electric grid, or placated that they are only two percent of our over-all energy use? I am speaking at Greenbuild 2012 this fall on this one issue alone.  And can social media and technology create greater openness and tools for activism that drive a broader societal awareness or corporate environmental responsibility and eventually “pay for themselves”?  It’s a muddy issue, but we can start to clarify it by identifying what the questions are today, and what will tip them in one direction or another.

The Impact of the Cloud

Google was first major technology company to get really transparent on the impact of their operations by releasing the energy usage from all of their data centers. It can only be huge, right? Actually, I was surprised at how small it was. Data centers make up about two percent of U.S. electricity use and Google’s share was less than one percent of that. Facebook more recently followed suit by disclosing their energy use and carbon footprint, and did a great job presenting some complex data and making it relatable.  In short, the carbon footprint of your annual Facebook use is about equal to the footprint of a couple glasses of wine or a medium latte.

Facebook: Sharing Our Footprint

Your Facebook carbon footprint is equal to… Image via Facebook

These companies represent two very big household names, but what about the other 99 percent of data centers that make up the remaining two percent of total U.S. electricity use? Facebook and Google are leaders, but there are many quiet laggards whose data centers we use frequently without even knowing. Data centers power everything from telecommunications to banking to health care. The collective impact of our use of data centers adds up quickly. We use them habitually, and what we all know about habits is that they are hard to break, and their impacts are cumulative. Having a few drinks now and then is no problem, but uncontrolled drinking and alcoholism have documented and serious health and social impacts. I know from my personal carbon footprint that plane flights are my biggest environmental vice.  All the effort I spend on eating local food, biking for transportation, minimizing home energy use, and recycling and composting can be quickly undone by a once-a-month plane flight habit. Well, we are all developing a data center habit, and very few of us have any idea of the impact.

The Silver Lining of the Cloud

Do social media and technology also have leverage and game changing possibilities in the positive sense? Some think these technologies also have untapped potential to catalyze industry-wide innovations that drive down environmental impacts across the sector, and even to reach our personal lives and choices. Facebook is the most active here, with more than a year of progress on their OpenCompute.org initiative that is breaking down the walls of secrecy in the data center industry and fostering sharing and innovation.

Beyond the data centers that sit back stage in this debate, technology also presents widely visible opportunities for environmental awareness and change. What can social media allow us to do that brings sustainability forward in a way that might offset it’s footprint?  Facebook specifically is excited about this.  Bill Weihl, Facebook’s Green Energy Czar, joined Facebook in part “because of the massive opportunity to help deliver sustainability through Facebook’s social platform. Over the next six to 12 months, we’ll increasingly connect with third party app developers that can help us deliver this goal.”

One of the exciting examples already in progress is Facebook’s partnership with OPOWER, a socialized personal energy usage and benchmarking tool to help educate and motivate people to take more responsibility for their energy use.  I tried it out on my own home, and while there are kinks (my electric utility isn’t participating yet, so I had to manually enter information to get my score), it’s headed in the right direction.

UNICEF on Facebook

UNICEF on Facebook. Image via UNICEF.

Social media like Facebook is also a new way for many sustainability-related causes to engage directly with people who are passionate about them.  Friends can share causes and, hopefully, their positive impacts.  Some of the most liked non-profit organizations on Facebook are Invisible Children with over 3 million fans, UNICEF with almost 2 million, and Greenpeace with over one million. The ability to create social awareness campaigns for any issue is increased through non-Facebook technology as well.  Slavery Footprint is an online quiz developed to raise awareness of human slavery in modern products, which has been widely tweeted and socially shared, and now has a mobile phone app to “check in at stores, ask  brands about slavery in their supply chain, and share your check ins so your friends will also help.”

The Potential of the Cloud

The environmental footprint of social media and technology is muddled because it is both large and small, both in impact and opportunity. There is a growing movement for transparency and social change within the social media and technology industry, and OpenCompute has helped show that the sky is the limit for creating efficiencies, but right now there are a lot of other distractions in the way (Hang on, I have a friend request) .  Whole organizations and individuals also have opportunities to make a widely-sharable positive impact with the social media and technological tools at our disposal. Whether we take advantage of them and reap sustainable dividends that cancel out or improve upon their footprint will be up to the industry, and the groups who can make use of that industry to drive real change.

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