Sustainability is more important than ever to a growing number of people around the world, and companies are redoubling their efforts to infuse sustainable practices across their operations. High Tech can play a key role in these efforts to accelerate progress toward a more sustainable future.
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Rising to the Top of Peoples’ Concerns
According to Accenture research, one in four consumers ranked sustainability among the top three factors they consider when choosing which brand to buy. And, Accenture found, expectations for sustainability have grown during COVID-19: Two-thirds of consumers agree that the pandemic has strengthened the need for greater business involvement in improving social and environmental outcomes.
Employees are equally interested in the sustainability efforts of the companies they work for. A 2020 study published in MDPI’s Sustainability journal found that a company’s commitment to sustainability has a positive effect on prospective employees’ job-pursuit intentions—meaning, a strong enterprise sustainability vision can positively impact a business’s ability to attract and keep talented employees.
Furthermore, investors are increasingly looking at sustainability-related issues when deciding where to put their money. The growth of the sustainability industry has made it easier for investors to build a portfolio with sustainable funds. In 2019, there were inflows of $55 billion into global sustainable ETFs and index mutual funds, reaching $220 billion in global sustainable assets, and $14.8 billion in the first quarter of 2020.
High Tech Can Help Lead the Way
High Tech will play a critical role in helping to answer the call for greater sustainability (see figure). In fact, in a joint UNGC-Accenture Strategy CEO study, three-quarters of CEOs indicated they are investing in digital to address sustainability challenges. The opportunities are numerous, but let’s highlight three key ones here.
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Using digital twin technology to reduce operational costs and global footprint
Digital twin technology enables companies to create real-time virtual models of physical assets and enterprise ecosystems based on engineering, operations, and meta data (data inputs enabled by IoT). According to a use-case study by Accenture, applying digital twin technology in sustainable product design and development can collectively save companies $135 billion in costs while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions by 282 million tons. Digital twins also may play an important role in addressing the fastest-growing waste stream, e-waste, of which only 17% of the 53 million tons created was properly recycled in 2019. Using digital twins in device recovery and remanufacturing can maximize the proportion of returned product that can be repurposed as well as providing visibility for safer waste management.
Cutting energy use and utility costs with smart, connected buildings
The global buildings sector currently contributes around 36% of the world’s energy emissions, with Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, considering it the “first fuel” to address energy conservation. Accordingly, the World Green Building Council has set goals for buildings and infrastructure globally to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 and achieve 100% net zero emissions by 2050. New smart systems can be a powerful tool in the pursuit of those targets, potentially delivering energy savings of 30 to 50% in existing buildings. The smart connected building market is expected to grow from $8.5 billion in 2016 to $58 billion by 2023—the largest growth among the Internet of Things segments. Added demand for occupancy and air quality monitoring as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely drive further growth.
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Improving recycling with AI robots
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that around 292.4 million tons of municipal waste was created in the US alone in 2018—representing a $55 billion industry whose size has remained consistently above $50 billion through 2020—with only 96 million tons recycled and composted. Lack of sufficient attention to recycling has translated into more than $200 billion worth of recyclable materials ending up in landfills. One promising solution to the problem is AI. For example, AMP Robotics uses AI technology to automatically sort recyclables (currently in more than 20 states), which the company estimates has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by approximately half a million metric tons. The Colorado-based tech firm has raised nearly $75 million in funding and was recognized by Forbes in 2020 as one of 25 small-business standouts amid the pandemic-driven surge in online commerce and accompanying massive increase in shipping boxes. Waste-sorting robotics is expected to reach $12.26 billion by 2024.
The preceding examples just scratch the surface of what technology makes possible in the pursuit of greater sustainability, and many High Tech companies themselves have made huge strides. For instance, by embedding circularity principles into its server management and iteratively reusing material, Google diverted 90% of its global data center operations waste from landfills in 2019. At the same time, innovative approaches—such as using machine learning to reduce data center energy usage by 40%—has made Google data centers twice as energy efficient as the average enterprise.
With results like these, it’s not unreasonable to feel optimistic that the world’s ambitious sustainability targets are within reach.
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