AUTHOR: Beatriz Valero de Urquía

Denise Bryant, Channel Director at NetApp, talks to Tech For Good about the environmental cost of storing data and the importance of becoming ‘consumer vigilantes’

Going paperless has been for years an indication of an increased preoccupation with the environment. However, these efforts often overlook the carbon emissions created by the cloud, at a great cost.

Every day, the world produces about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and the energy required to power and cool the data centres where it is stored has been found to generate 80 megatonnes of carbon dioxide a year. If things continue in the same way, it is estimated that data centres will consume 8% of the world’s electricity by 2030. Yet, only 32% of the data that is stored is ever used again. In total, the 68% of data that we are creating, storing and forgetting about is producing more CO2 emissions than the entire airline industry.

The increase in concern regarding sustainable business practices has been parallel to the rise of the IT industry as a whole. Denise Bryant, Channel Director at cloud-led data-centric software provider NetApp, tells Tech For Good about the importance of consumer awareness of their digital carbon footprints, especially when it comes to cloud technologies.

“In the 40 years I've worked in this industry, IT has changed massively for the better,” she says. “It's now time for us to take the next step because sustainable IT could never be more important.”

When Bryant started her university degree, she was undertaking one of the first computer software courses at Manchester University. At the time, the term ‘computer software’ had not even been invented. Now, in her role at NetApp, she is responsible for the ongoing successful partnership with the UKI NetApp partners, ranging from GSIs to resellers to born-in-the-cloud partners, and enabling these organisations to lead with data.

During Bryant’s 40-year career in the industry, she has seen a definite change in consumer behaviour, by which consumers have increasingly bought IT products that align with their ethical principles, including sustainability. “When I first started in IT, there wasn’t a focus on sustainability in the industry,” she says. “It was about getting IT to deliver accurate results - that was challenging enough in the early days. However, we are long past that now. IT and the native data intelligence and analytics that can now be provided is a business necessity. “Increasingly the focus has been on environmental, social, and governance [ESG] principles and the resulting IT carbon footprint measurements and controls. Recently, the global nature of the pandemic has made us all ‘consumer vigilantes’ as we realise our fallibility and the fragile nature and delicate balance of our environment. It has not just pricked but exploded the collective conscience, both individually and corporately, in terms of our responsibility to our fellow humans and future generations.”

When I first started in IT, there wasn’t a focus on sustainability in the industry. However, we are long past that now. IT and the native data intelligence and analytics that can now be provided is a business necessity”

Denise Bryant

When Bryant refers to ‘consumer vigilantes’, she emphasises the important role that both individuals and organisations have in taking responsibility for their own environmental impact and ensuring that organisations become more sustainable in every facet of their operations, including IT. Consumers are increasingly aware of the ethics of the companies they buy products from. According to a survey conducted by Forbes, 92% of consumers say they’re more likely to trust brands that are environmentally or socially conscious and 87% of consumers would buy a product with a social and environmental benefit if given the opportunity. In addition, more than half of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable goods. However, although businesses are responding to this market demand to become more environmentally conscious, there is still a long way to go. Out of 1.5 million organisations worldwide today, only 12,000 of them regularly report their greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, some initiatives that might seem like a step towards sustainability hide a high environmental cost, such as moving to the cloud.

“The issue is not only around the data that we store,” Bryant says. “Carbon emissions are also massively negatively impacted by the actions we, as IT users, take. “Corporate citizens have a huge role to play to ensure we are not just moving ‘our mess’. It’s easy for organisations to talk about minimising their carbon footprint because they have moved workloads to the cloud. Cloud providers pride themselves on their sustainable platforms and rightly so. However, it is the responsibility of every organisation that moves workloads to the cloud to be acutely aware that they continually optimise their data, no matter where that data is stored. All data should be de-duplicated, optimised, compressed, and tiered. Storing ‘a mess’ anywhere, in the cloud or on-premise, is not good practice and certainly not sustainable.” Who doesn’t have hundreds of videos of their pets stored on their phone? Although it might seem that going paperless is environmentally friendly, storing and sending hours and hours of content also comes with its own emissions.

For example, an email that takes 10 minutes to write and is sent to 100 people - 99 of whom take three seconds to realise they should ignore it and one of whom actually reads it - creates 26g of CO2 emissions. To make matters worse, multiple copies of that one original email are stored both locally and in the cloud. When one multiplies this by all the people that send multiple emails both while at work and at home, it is easy to see that the impact is massive. Therefore, although moving data to the cloud does improve sustainability, it is fundamental that that process is accompanied by increased awareness of the data that is being produced, to avoid merely pushing the problem further down the supply chain. “Finding the optimal way of using, storing and processing data is important on our journey to becoming more sustainable,” Bryant says. “This is where NetApp can play a pivotal role.”

The industry average Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) rating, which measures the energy efficiency of a data centre, is 1.8%. NetApp’s PUE rating is 1.15%. According to Bryant, this great rating is due to the fact that NetApp uses its own technologies to optimise the data in its data centres. However, she also admits that the journey is still ongoing. ESG goals stress the importance of standards, measurements and accurate reporting. Although NetApp has put a lot of effort into improving these standards, Bryant still believes that many companies have not gone “granular enough” in terms of defining specific standards that correlate to the scopes of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol and the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement. Only by defining specific standards, the efficacy of ESG strategies can be adequately measured, avoiding the traps of ‘greenwashing’. This is a process by which organisations pick the standards that best suit their ESG reports and market those successes, changing them every month or year to best suit their position at every given moment. Greenwashing creates a situation in which companies use different standards to measure their impact and remove the possibility of making a comparison with competitors.

The issue is not only around the data that we store. Carbon emissions are also massively negatively impacted by the actions we, as IT users, take”

“We are all on a journey towards carbon neutrality and we are aware that the IT industry consumes huge amounts of energy,” she says. “We are collectively working towards minimising this by prompting the right discussions and calling for better standards. If we have common standards, and those standards are mandatory, and companies have to report on them, the more we tighten those standards, the less open to interpretation they can be, then the better the industry will become. “It will take a global effort to ensure we are managing data correctly and requires corporate citizens within every business to be acutely aware and vocal regarding the environmental impact of what they are storing and how we are using IT.” While cloud providers operate extremely efficient data centres, it isn’t sustainable to keep superfluous data anywhere, either in data centres or in a cloud service provider. Regardless of where it is stored, superfluous data will consume the same amount of electricity, producing the same level of emissions as it would anywhere else.

Therefore, although companies should be aware of the need to reduce the data that they store, it is also, ultimately, a global and collective responsibility. “Just because you are exporting data to other locations, doesn’t mean this data is no longer your problem,” Bryant says. “Data proliferates a bit like COVID, it's going to go everywhere. And we need to change not only the corporate conscience, but the consumer conscience.” According to Bryant, a way in which awareness can be raised about this issue would be to have an emoji on every phone screen that would change colour from green to red, depending on use and the carbon emissions associated with it. This would incentivise people to, for example, send links to spreadsheets instead of several attachments.

During the Women in Silicon Roundabout Conference, Bryant spoke to a group of female tech leaders about the importance of being aware of one’s own digital carbon footprint, as well as inquiring about the companies they work for and with. Only then, a real impact will be made and greenwashing will be avoided. “I still think we have a long way to go,” she said. “But I can tell you that in 40 years, we have come a long way. And it's now time for us to take the next step in becoming today's consumer vigilantes. Because I believe that the word consumer now is not somebody who watches TV adverts. It's us, behaving as corporate citizens in the companies that we work for.”

During the past few decades, companies have made great progress in terms of inclusivity. When Bryant began her studies, less than two percent of her cohort was female. Today, there is over one million women working in STEM in the UK, according to the 2019 Workforce Statistics. In the same way that the corporate world has risen to the challenge of making workplaces more inclusive, it can now change its approach to sustainability and the cloud.

It will take a global effort to ensure we are managing data correctly and requires corporate citizens within every business to be acutely aware and vocal regarding the environmental impact of what they are storing and how we are using IT”

“Importantly, there is a need for unified standards of sustainability measurement in the IT industry,” she says. “Accurate standardised reporting on GHG Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions is fundamental – this needs to be the focus of all of us as corporate consumer vigilantes. “A green future means a future with better awareness of the impact of our behaviours when using IT and better awareness of the importance of managing data optimally.” IT is the future. However, in order for technology to continue improving lives, it must cease to do so at the expense of the planet. Consumers have the power to make this happen, by demanding better environmental policies from the companies they buy their products from, and learning to make use of them in a way that is both useful and sustainable. Only then we will be able to keep our heads - and data - in the cloud.