How Software Companies Can Reduce Their Carbon Footprint

by Bianca |
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How Software Companies Can Reduce Their Carbon Footprint

The world of advertising is rife with talent. These whipper-snappers are responsible for successful campaigns that influence colloquial terms; social awareness and memes, let alone purchase trends. One such winner is the term, ‘carbon footprint.’ If it weren’t for the 2004 calculator campaign, it would probably not be a part of our vernacular. Armed with the appropriate jargon, we now ask ourselves, how can I reduce my contribution? I’m eating less meat. Take the free shower timer! 


But believe it or not, this campaign was a deflection tactic, funded by BP. Distract to delay, to appease, to give our minds something plausible to worry about. Harriet Kingaby’s Tedx talk illustrates more of the whirlpool-suck-distract tactics of online advertising. Big players seek to alleviate pressure from themselves by sowing seeds of doubt to undermine urgency. AKA, the ‘Big Tobacco’ effect. Kingaby refers to mindsets like, ‘Technology will save us, and ‘China needs to act first’ as characteristics of this messaging.


The engine comes in two forms; campaigns that directly propagate this messaging. And videos that promote these knee-capping ideas and conspiracy theories, are funded by advertisers.


As Kingaby puts it, companies that indirectly fund these videos, through advertising on platforms like YouTube, probably don’t realize they’re paying for this. She suggests asking questions, being informed and demanding more from these providers with regard to the content ads are displayed.


On the flip side, how is this bad? An emphasis on personal standards and awareness? Here’s why: reasonable doubt is more insidious than an extreme point of view. Because it’s plausible and merits consideration, it’s an even bigger time waster. It distracts us from the point. 


Yes, it’s true that a little goes a long way. As individuals, we should always be striving to contribute to collective responsibility; it’s not just in our best interests; it’s also how to be more than base. But the case of climate change has to be tackled at a penetrating level. We’re beyond that point. 


Thankfully, there are tireless scientists and activists out there. As a result of their work, the public that is untouched by conspiratorial doubt, knows that the problem is largely systemic.


The irony is that countries with less power to make far-reaching decisions are the most at risk of damage. The greatest CO2 emitters are China and the United States, dominant international players. The countries most at risk of imminent consequences are Japan, The Philippines, India and Rwanda. 


Software technology is a huge contributor to the problem. Don’t even get me started on cryptocurrency. So this is how you can make an impact in your own corner. As an organization, we can safely assume that changes made will have an even greater impact than that of individuals. And if that doesn’t sway you, just remember: using less energy usually means saving more money. If nothing else, do it for the bottom line. 


Assess Current Impact


To get where you’re headed, you have to know where you are. How can you find your business’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions? The best start is compiling all of the data available to you. It’s bitsy but relatively easy to start. 


Track your mileage


Whether it’s long-distance flying or public transport, getting places has a price. 


Wholegrain Digital went the extra mile to assess its carbon footprint. They’re doing an amazing job of being a conscientious player. That said, travel still stands for the majority percentage of their GHG contribution. Knowing they’re doing everything they can throws in stark light how pervasive energy emissions from travel are.


Amassing the mileage numbers will let you see where you can cut back. Here are some tips:


  • Survey your employees to find out their method of commute to and from work, where they’re coming from, and how often they come into the office

  • Obtain your corporate account’s flight and car rental history for the last 12 months; the mileage should be available to add up

  • Check your Uber, Lyft or other rideshare accounts for trip history


When you’ve figured out what your current transport levels are, set benchmarks for reduction. Here are some ways to make that happen:


  • Do consider remote work options for your employees; even just one extra day a week can hugely impact emission targets. Through the pandemic, hybrid set-ups have become the norm, and they may prefer this way of doing things. It could be a win-win.


  • To implement policies that mandate virtual meetings over domestic or international travel. It’s always more fun to go in person, but our priorities need to reflect our reality now. Saving flight mileage is low-hanging but consequential, fruit.


  • Facilitate carpool options! You can provide a simple checkbox on the commute survey asking employees if they’d be interested in carpooling to come to work. This can also serve as permission to connect them with other, interested employees, who drive and live in the same locale. 


  • Amend company policy so that rideshare corporate expenses are only allowed to be made outside of a certain radius. That way, if the destination can be walked to in say, 20 minutes or less, it encourages employees to take that option. 


Energy consumption


Whether you handle the accounts yourself or have a landlord or facilities manager who does so, these numbers may be easier to amass. If you’re in a smaller office, even just monthly electricity, heating/cooling, gas and water bills tell you a lot. Observe the routine around turning lights and computers off.


If you want to take it further, you could get an energy audit from local utilities or energy provider; many will provide this for free. They can give you information about usage, inefficient insulation and even alternative lighting systems.


Armed with information, take action to make some changes:


  • Signage is an excellent place to start. Little prompts with regard to keeping the tap turned off, turning computers off before leaving the office and turning lights off are seriously effective. Having incandescent bulbs off an extra hour a day can save $24 per bulb a year.

  • Keep manual heating/cooling systems within a set range; just one degree of reduction in temperature extremity “can reduce the power it uses by 10%

  • Get your LED game on. They’re a ridiculous amount more energy efficient than incandescent. Sensor lights are also a great way of making sure they’re off when they’re not needed


  • Have a “power down” policy - devs and workers must shut down their machines at end of day

  • Keep any new appliance purchases in the ENERGY STAR family - this means it’s recognized by international standards as highly efficient


These actions may seem small; collectively they can have a huge impact on emissions and also, cost. 


Waste Disposal


Proper disposal and processing can sometimes fall by the wayside at larger companies. While recycling has become part and parcel of our day-to-day, 


  • Responsibly dispose of your electronics

  • Compost


Set benchmarks as non-negotiables; if something is mandatory, you’ll find a way to adapt. If it’s vague and open-ended, you’ll probably find a way not to. 


Convert your usage


In truth, the above are the basics; the broad strokes. Some of the usual suspects. There are many other factors that can be considered, from construction materials to hotel stays. We encourage you to take it further and make it as specific as you’d like. But for a starting point, this is already great. 


If you’re looking to solidify the numbers into a carbon emission total, the Canadian and the UK governments have detailed spreadsheet guides. All you need is your data; simply input it to the spreadsheet, and it helps calculate your emissions. This is handy for communications within and outside of your company, and to have a holistic benchmark to thwart. 


Now you’ve got your bottom line, let’s dive into a few methods of reduction. 



Check on your Cloud Storage Provider


Cloud storage is a standard for software companies (and individuals) everywhere. It’s a combination of economy, convenience and peace of mind. It’s not going anywhere. But as Justin Adamson of Stanford Magazine puts it, “storing your data on the cloud uses far more energy than storing it on your computer, and thus has an environmental impact commensurate with that difference.”


So how can we neutralize this expenditure? 


Choose service providers whose data centers run on renewable energy. The two biggest players are thankfully making strides. Microsoft Azure has committed to 100% renewable energy use by 2025, and is already carbon neutral. Amazon’s AWS has the same commitment, and achieved renewable energy use across 65% of its business in 2020


They also have a comprehensive map letting you know where their services are entirely powered by renewable energy. In that way, you can transfer some or all of your workload to greener regions of operation. Plus, The Green Cost Explorer allows you to check out your green (environmentally sustainable) vs. grey (problematic) spend using their cloud system so that you can measure it up against your business’ commitments.  


Capacity Planning


Demand fluctuates over the 24 hour period. If the power driving data centers runs at full capacity, even when it’s not being made use of, that’s untold amounts of wasted energy. Thankfully, auto-scaling has made it possible for cloud service providers to scale capacity with demand, reducing unnecessary output. Check on your provider and make sure they have auto-scale capabilities. 


Evaluating Supplier Partnerships


It’s one thing for a business (including yours) to say they employ best practice. We all know the reality is vastly different. People often think they’re too busy, don’t truly care, or feel it would take up too many resources to make significant changes. So if you’re looking to work with conscientious suppliers, it’s a great idea to seek those who are certified or have legitimate standards for their environmental impact. 


The International Organization for Standardization has thousands of relative standards; frequently, companies will choose to commit to ISO 37101 and ISO 26000, while others seek certification like LEED or ENERGY STAR. Check out a bigger list of certifications here. If your supplier candidate is working at one of these, it’s a great sign. 


Otherwise, Stephanie Lapierre’s advice is sound: “Procurement can ask suppliers for specific sustainability objectives and metrics, and look for evidence that these policies are put into practice. If possible, it’s always a great idea to visit the supplier’s facility and observe sustainability practices firsthand.”


App Containerization


Pringles. Once you start, you can’t stop. L’Oréal. Because you’re worth it.


App containers. Take less space. 


Admittedly, providers like Docker, hyper-V and LXC aren’t ripe with catchy slogans. Their party lines tend to focus on benefits, like the efficiency and portability containerization provides. But they work. 


App containers mean you don’t need to launch a full virtual machine to access applications. The run-time is reduced, and CPU and memory performance are improved. Isolation features mean security is upped. How does this work? A container combines lightweight runtime components, including dependencies and configuration, into one image.


These are great selling points for the conscientious software entrepreneur, but here’s another: it’s better for the environment, too. Your hardware infrastructure mish-mash won’t affect how applications are loaded, so you don’t need to jettison it just to keep up with progress. You can also run more applications on the same server. Less waste, more taste.  


Opportunities to Offset


Many companies have helped make up the remainder of their ‘carbon neutral’ status through tree planting. Unfortunately, this initiative, while well-intended, is an easy fix with sometimes backfiring consequences. According to Umair Ifan of Vox, “trees can be a risky bet for permanent carbon storage, demanding monitoring and protection indefinitely.” This is because with events like “bushfires in Australia and fires in unhealthy parts of the rainforest in Brazil, the carbon stored in these forests can suddenly get pumped back into the air.” 


So what kind of investments can a business make to ensure their money is going towards active, effective initiatives? 


You want to look for certified or third-party audited companies, that diversify their projects. Investopedia made a comprehensive list of leading choices, which you can check out here


There tend to be more ‘bad’ offsets than ‘good’ offsets, who overpromise and underdeliver. So make sure you do your research to confirm that the partner you’re working with is getting it right. The New York Times recommends looking for “certifications by auditors or standards groups like The Gold Standard or Green-e.”


The Sum of Parts


While climate change needs to be tackled at the highest level, when companies worldwide make incremental changes, we and our planet benefit. We can turn this around, together. For more practical information and an all-round engaging talk, check out Chris Adams’ lecture: What You Can Do When Software is Heating the World