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Digitality, often portrayed as intangible, is grounded in tangible resources like rare minerals and fossil fuels. The IT sector's environmental impact is comparable to that of the aviation industry, and it's expected to grow as data demand increases.

  • Digitality equals electricity that is needed to run it. Mostly come from burning fossil fuels.
  • Large amounts of energy used to create digital products and data cause a significant digital carbon footprint.
  • Energy production and water usage are required at a different supply-chain level, from mining rare minerals, production and distribution devices, and running humongous data centers to businesses and individuals' growing need for data and technology innovations.
  • E-waste. Each year we produce an unbelievable amount of hazardous electronic waste, non-recyclable, stored in landfills that could cover Manhattan.
  • Awareness of the environmental impact of your digital technology. That's a good start toward implementing sustainability in product design.

The idea of digitality is surrounded by airy, ephemeral terms emphasizing its intangibility. This refers to storing data "in the cloud," about "virtual reality," that settles down a human in an unrealistic dimension, taking him off the ground, tactility and true senses belonging to his body, surrounding environment, and physical contact with other people. In a symbolic shot, digitality is represented through the "Matrix" movie scene as an abstract idea of falling like rain binary code, gently flowing through our reality.

The real digitality looks quite the opposite. Digitality is very tangible, grounded in the earth through rare minerals to manufacture its devices and fossil fuels that are burnt to run it. All that happens on many different levels:

  • from manufacturing electronic devices,
  • their life cycle,
  • software, and data development,
  • server data storage and transfer,
  • energy consumption,
  • our digital behavior,
  • finishing on the e-waste we generate every time we switch to a new laptop or smartphone.

The amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated by the IT sector (so all the supply chain from manufacturers and producers to consumers) is comparable to this generated by the aviation industry, about 2% - 4% yearly. Currently, digital data costs us 416.2 terawatts per year - that's about as much electricity as the entire United Kingdom consumes in a year. However, this negative environmental impact can increase rapidly through the following years, as the population's hunger for data, access to information, and new technology will constantly grow.

The impact of technology on our planet, environment, and future is humongous. Its mindless use can lead to environmental damage and irreversible climate change. Awareness of this fact is a good start for every individual and business representative to reduce the environmental impact of digital products and services. It will initiate the path towards more sustainable digital products, where we become the leaders of good change for our planet, customers, and business.

When thinking about digitality in terms of the future of our planet, it is mainly perceived as a synonym for liberating technology that, even at the moment of ethical discussion on the future of AI, makes our work more efficient, interpersonal communication quicker, and knowledge sharing more available. Digital solutions and processes replaced in many areas its physical equivalents.

It may sound like faraway times, but many still remember times without digitality, computers, and the internet. With their stories, we are convinced of how vital was the beginning of the digital revolution. We share with them, sometimes unbelievable for the digitally literate, excitement related to the first personal computers, connection with the internet, sending the first files and emails, playing music, and videos, reading electronic encyclopedias with audio and video files offering never-ending journeys with billions of hyperlinks, and chatting with people from different parts of the world in a matter of seconds. It was like entering a different dimension of life, finding ourselves in the far future, known from sci-fi movies. For current digital native generations, it sounds like an exaggeration, but that was the moment when humans became the rulers of space and time itself.

Yes, the digital revolution brought so many goodies with it. It gave us the power to gather knowledge, understand our world much better, and exchange information with every part of the world with the snap of a finger. It became the virtual form of ancient Greek Agora, where people gathered to spread their ideas and benefit from its social and commercial functions. But at the same time, its democratic nature shows us that there is a problem with controlling it on any level, and this show how digitality, with all its advantages, also hides its darker side.

Many scientists proved that the pandemic when the COVID virus took over the world and forced us to stay at home, turned into a detoxicating treatment for the Earth. This was done by decreasing global greenhouse gas emissions. We found out that we don’t have to commute to work, simply doing more of our regular job in the “home office,” we don’t need to fly for business trips to see other clients and team members for few-hour meetings because we can simply arrange it online.

Computer networks and digital technology have become saving solutions in the face of a problematic pandemic situation in the world. The pandemic forced us to make our life much more digital, which, as many stated, was a game changer for themselves and a reset for the Earth. Our planet could finally rest and slow down, as well as its environment. Unfortunately, at this moment, we seem to forget that digital has its price in an international currency called carbon footprint.

The time of innocent digitality has passed. It is not Neverland island where we don't want to grow up like Peter Pan. It is inseparable from our real, actual life on the very tangible planet called Earth. In this sense, Madonna was right, singing that we live in the material world. Cause digitality is material and accountable in the real world. And it is time to look at it from a more mature angle.

Digitality, in fact, is not as innocent as we had believed. It generates many goodies but also wastes. In both cases, it requires a massive amount of energy to exist. Digital equals the power that mostly comes from burning fossil fuels, having its own humongous digital carbon footprint. This causes a significant impact on the environment and contributing to climate change.

None of us need convincing today about the harmful effects of CO2 and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. The most significant carbon footprints are associated with the energy sector, industry, agriculture, or aviation. Would anyone include digital products, the IT sector, technology, to this "shaming club"?

Instead, digital is treated as a remedy for the ills of this world, a way to green processes that have been problematic for us so far. Many of us live in the sense of the digital unreality. Digitality itself creates its own illusion of environmental friendliness. As Gerry McGovern writes in "World Wide Waste," digitality:

So this is the moment when the illusion bubble bursts, and we learn the truth (if we don't know it yet). Digitality is not a magic substance, or a supernatural state of matter. Every byte has its equivalent in energy and electricity. Every byte, kilobyte, GB, and so on requires electricity. To be precise, a vast amount of electricity. Electricity is used to create digital items but also to store and transfer them. If you turn off the electricity, there won't be a web or digital products. With no power, devices become, after some time, just useless plastic objects with no reason to be kept anymore. Digitality doesn't exist without them. We need computers, mobiles, tablets, to transform digital data into understandable form and data centers to store them. So electricity is also used when they are manufactured.

So digitality, however intangible and immaterial it seems, has its hidden weight and cost. This is paid mainly by energy production and through its digital carbon footprint negatively impacting the environment. To be clear, digitality can sound like an abstract idea, but it is a core of digital product creation that surrounds us: websites, applications, software, digital images, videos, and texts, and many different processes related to it, technology and devices that translate binary code into an understandable form of images, text, videos, animation, shapes. 

The rebound effect, also known as the Jevson paradox, should also catch our attention. Leading tech companies are aware of their impact and energy usage. Therefore for many years, for example, they have implemented into their policies sustainable strategies, searching for renewable energy in hosting, offsetting the carbon footprint, and supporting greener solutions that make their technology energy-efficient. However, this can lead to a rebound effect when the reduction in energy consumption achieved through digital technologies is offset by an increase in overall energy consumption due to expanded usage or new applications.

For example, people may be inclined to use those energy-reducing solutions more frequently or adopt additional digital services, ultimately contributing to an increase in total energy consumption rather than a decrease. Also, efficient and streamlined processes in the IT sector may lead to increased production, consumption, and resource extraction, thereby counteracting the environmental benefits achieved through improved efficiency.

That's why it is crucial to implement a holistic approach into any digital action, considering not only efficiency gains but also broader implications of digital consumption and its potential environmental consequences. 

So as we have already found out, a digital footprint exists. It relates to all energy used and produced for making this digital world visible and useful for us as its creators, owners, and users. Let's understand how digital products impact the environment throughout their lifecycle:

80%. This number illustrates the amount of energy used during manufacturing in the scope of the entire life cycle of electronic products. There would be no digitality without its transmitters, including computers, smartphones, tablets, smart solutions, data centers, and cables that transmit those data.

And this is also another belief that data transfer happens thanks to the "cloud" through the air and satellites. Actually, we shouldn't compare the Internet to the cloud but rather to the ocean. 90% of data transfer goes through cables installed at the bottom of seas and oceans, crossing our blue planet with bands of high-speed links installed by ships. The map of these underwater cables surprises the extent and number of these connections. It may be shocking to know that only a small percentage of data transmission is via satellite links.

But manufacturing is rarely associated with the cables that must be fabricated to carry and connect devices to the network. Thanks to this process, we know we can hold a new smartphone, work on a computer, watch movies on huge TVs, and play the latest video game productions on consoles. However, we rarely know how many materials were used to make these devices or their cost to planet Earth.

Digital devices are manufactured using three other activities:

  • Mining Public discourse on environmental issues primarily focuses on non-renewable energy sources like carbon, oil, and gas. It hardly mentions other minerals that must be excavated to produce technology without which we cannot live today. Digital devices and environmentally friendly technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles consume a lot of essential materials. In the case of smartphones, their creation requires the extraction of many unique and precious minerals and metals. For example, smartphones contain about 80% of all stable elements on the periodic table, including 17 rare earth elements. The number of so-called Critical Raw Minerals or rare earth elements is finite, and they have both technical and financial value.
  • Producing Once minerals and metals are extracted and processed, they are shipped to factories that start hardware production. This step in digital device production is highly energy-demanding and carbon-intensive regarding its footprint. To be strict, the energy needed at this step is much higher than at the use phase, calculated at 80% of the energy required for the entire product life cycle. This process requires a vast amount of previously collected resources that produce semiconductors, sometimes called integrated circuits or microchips. The acceleration of product innovation, product obsolescence, and targeted advertising contribute to the growth of the digital footprint of manufacturing. Digital product's environmental footprint is high despite producers' continuous efforts to increase energy efficiency and reduce the impact on the planet. Production of digital devices is also linked to significant consumption and usage of water. We can even talk about the water footprint of digital devices because the complex processes of creating digital devices require water almost at each step. Most of the used water is wasted, limited by pollutants, and compliance with environmental standards. Wastewater must be diluted with clean water before entering the waterway. Its calculated that amount of used water, from mining activities to the end product, is estimated at 3,190 gallons (12,760 liters).
  • Distribution When it comes to digital device distribution, there is hardly any chance to buy something locally, unlike food from your favorite restaurants or vegetables from local farmers. Its supply chain is very fragmented. It starts with mining in countries like Chile, and Congo. It is produced in Taiwan or China, and travels to the US and other Western countries, from where it is sold to local stores and distributors. Then it can finally reach individual consumers, their homes, and businesses. The travel of its components and its ready version is very long. This leaves behind a huge carbon footprint generated by its transportation, whether a ship, railroad, truck, or airline. Regarding distribution, environmental problems have become much more significant with the expansion of eCommerce. The Covid-19 pandemic popularized much more online shopping, but besides it, our needs and behavior as customers changed drastically. We are impatient customers. In the past, we got used to waiting at least a week to get the delivery. Now it is often not a matter of the next day but even hours! Contemporary consumerism increases the carbon footprint of ordered devices. We usually double its negative effect with the politics of return by sending back and purchasing new devices through reckless decisions.

With the rise of the products availability, we have replaced the culture of repair with the culture of waste. Not only when something is broken and needs restoration, but we also replace it simply by buying new models. In only one year, 2019, we produced 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste. And only 17.4 % of it was documented as recycled, as its complexity and mix of materials make recycling difficult and costly. Other unrecycled parts mostly travel to developing countries where they are stored in electronic landfills. This exposes their workers to health and environmental hazards, including toxic materials harmful to people and the environment. The situation in the following years will worsen because it is estimated that in 2050 we will produce even more than 120 million tons a year.

Electronic wastes tend to be much more destructive to the environment than other wastes. Several reasons cause it. The first is the short lifespan of electronic devices (about five years). Producers of them build them not to become future-proof but rather to force their owners to change them frequently. We can't simply repair them and replace their batteries. New software updates don't boost their speed and functionality but make them slower and less user-friendly. The need for new hardware, software, and devices is connected to the tech industry, which must always be one step ahead, introducing innovations, changes, and novelties. As we learn from technology campaigns, having the latest model and software is the only way for customers to stay up-to-date and receive prestige. The core problem at this level is not recycling. It is about the overproduction and overconsumption spread by current market patterns and the culture of possession and accumulation.

The industry related to digital products and technology in the context of needed and consumed energy is like an eternally hungry giant consuming almost everything in its path. The energy consumption is unimaginable, even as technology strives to become more and more energy efficient. However, due to the explosion of data produced and the growing number of new users and owners of technology and digital devices, the current GHG emissions will rise from 3.6% in 2020 to even 14% in 2040.

The most significant energy contributors include:

  • Data centers As we produce more digital data, digital services, and product, energy required to run data centers will grow proportionally. We can't tackle the climate crisis without focusing on data centers. The proliferation of data traffic has led to an unprecedented surge in electricity demand, making data centers one of the most rapidly expanding sources of energy consumption worldwide. From industry titans like Facebook and Google to small businesses operating websites, every company relies on internet servers that continuously draw power from the electrical grid throughout the year. Unfortunately, the electricity requirements of data centers are predominantly met by fossil fuel sources, resulting in substantial carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This heavy reliance on fossil fuels exacerbates data centers' already significant environmental impact. As reported in a New York Times article from 2013, digital warehouses, commonly known as data centers, consume an astounding 30 billion watts of electricity. This is equivalent to the power output of approximately 30 nuclear power plants. To put this into perspective, the energy consumption of a single data centre can rival that of an entire small town. The challenge for the future improvement of data centers’ operation, making them more environmentally friendly, is not only the proper management of their energy needs but also water waste generated during their cooling or waste heat, which could be used to heat houses (as it happened in one place in Findladia) or a greenhouse (Netherlands).
  • Data transfer Data transfer is responsible for a significant portion of carbon emissions linked to the internet, ranging from 30% to 50%. Data has become ubiquitous, with the internet being a huge source of it. Users and website owners produce more than 2.5 quintillion bytes daily. As of 2020, the rate of data generated for every individual on Earth was projected to be 1.7MB per second, an enormous amount. What do we mean by "data transfer"? Data is all sorts of information in digital form. So the energy to transfer it is used when users: - download data - upload data - send data - use data processing and storage

As digital devices, product or service users, owners, and creators, we are responsible for the number of created and used data and reducing digital carbon footprint. Research shows that transferring 1GB of data produces 3kg of CO2. This amount is equivalent to driving 7 miles in a car (11.2654 kilometers), so multiplying it by billions of people adds up quickly.

  • Data storage and dark data In the most ideal world, there is no waste stream of data and no digital waste. We all aim towards a digital economy with responsible product creation, a long digital product life cycle, and mindful analyzing of the already created data. Because unfortunately, not everyone knows that once data are made, there is still needed energy to store them in data centers. In the digital sphere, we lose the sense of weight and value. If our physical wardrobe or shelves are full of things, we must manage them: remove something to make a place for new items. When our digital local storage disks are full, we buy new storage to collect more data. Hardly ever we think about analyzing those archives to see if the data collected there are still relevant and valid or if we could easily remove them as we will never access them in the future. Data centers and storage are full of so-called dark data, describing data collected, processed, and stored but not used for any purpose. For many businesses, dark data storage is difficult to identify and measure because it is out of sight and out of mind. It is estimated that 52% of organizations' data is 'dark.' Another kind of dark data is content that is produced and published on websites but never achieved by anyone because of its poor value, not bringing any answer to people searching for them through search engines. The web is full of never read and watched content. In 2018 Ahrefs published their study showing that 91% of the webpages they analyzed got zero traffic from Google. So to be clear, they required at least energy to be created by someone. Now they are like invisible vampires stealing energy through storage, without being found and used.

As web creators, owners, and entrepreneurs who care about the planet's future, eager to create a sustainable business, we are also responsible for the environmental impact of our digital products. One of the significant impacts of the technology and software we create is how much data it contains. We usually are unaware of how much a website or application weighs, let alone how many CO2 it emits.

The number of websites increased from 3,000 in 1994 to 1,7 billion in 2019. Their average weight also changed dramatically, growing from 100kB to about 4MB for the webpage in 2019. From 2017 to 2020, the median size of a web page has increased by 30 percent. Does that mean they are better, look more attractive, and serve better for their owners and users? Not really. Most of this "digital obesity" results from the use of unnecessary images, video, and third-party websites (like non-privacy-friendly web analytics), which can be replaced with better-optimized content. Instead of hiring marketing agencies that think about making their campaigns more attractive, simply focusing on optimizing and analyzing the content in terms of value to website visitors and customers can positively impact your digital user experience, improve it, and increase conversion and business results.

What makes a product sustainable? There are number of ways to reduce its weight and the potential impact on the environment. With the eco-design approach, while create digital products, we can reduce the energy needed to operate them. Sustainable designers can work on image optimization or font budget setting. As owners, we can also choose sustainable digital tools that minimize the negative impact and other solutions, such as "green" hosting based on renewable energy. Sustainability, which is applied to business strategy and creating eco design and eco digital products, is a holistic approach that considers many factors. Knowledge and well-defined project scope can lead to a more enviromentally sustainable design product and sustainable business that represents positive change.

And there is always the last (but not least) chain in this digital process that also impacts the carbon emission - the user. Using devices, technology, and the internet directly affect energy consumption and carbon emissions. For example, leaving devices on standby mode or charging them unnecessarily can cause so-called "vampire power," waste energy, and contribute to carbon emissions, as can leaving lights or other electronics on when not in use.

Another factor to consider is how much data users consume or upload to the internet. Streaming videos, storing billions of photos, downloading large files, scrolling without reflection on social media, gathering thousands of never-read newsletters or ebooks, or using cloud-based services can all require significant amounts of energy, as data centers that host these services consume vast amounts of electricity.

To reduce the impact of our digital footprint, users can take simple steps like turning off devices when not in use. They can also use energy-efficient settings on devices like dark mode, limiting unnecessary data usage, deleting those we don't need already and simply reducing the number of generated new ones. By making conscious choices about how we use technology, we can all personally make a positive impact on the environment.

We live in a time of rapid technological development. We will undoubtedly digitize our lives, behavior, and work much more in this process. Access to the internet will finally reach almost every part of the world, improving many people's lives. However, looking at this natural development from a responsible and mindful perspective is incredibly vital. Awareness that digital is material and translates into the energy needed for its existence is an excellent start to take further actions to minimize its negative environmental impact.

With a common approach toward more sustainable technology, we can quantify our efforts as creators and owners of digital products. Of course, we can't resign from all our digital products or remove all images and videos from websites and social media. We need to strike a balance between those choices, always start with the question of whether we really need something or if there is anything we can improve for the planet and future generations.

In this way, our efforts in terms of digital products and services can play a significant role in designing a more sustainable business and society.

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