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Digital Sobriety: what is it and how to deploy it in your company?

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Hailed for saving time, productivity and even paper, the digital transformation of society also has its share of consequences for the environment. In 2022, digital uses are already estimated to be responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions - an impact that is expected to double by 2025 with their generalization to developing countries. It is now becoming urgent to accompany the necessary digital boom with greater sobriety, by making digital use more responsible, both at a personal and professional level. Companies, that have seen their processes change considerably with the digital shift, have a major role to play in making the digital shift compatible with the ecological transition.

What is digital sobriety?

The concept of digital sobriety is relatively recent because it was only born with the massive rise of digital and the first observation of a problematic digital carbon footprint. It was in 2008 that the Green IT France association introduced the expression to design digital services that are more sober and to moderate the use of digital technology on a daily basis. Digital sobriety involves all the actors of society in their relationship with digital: individuals, companies and organizations that consume digital services, as well as companies that design, develop and offer digital services and products.

The Shift Project, a think tank that works towards a carbon-free economy, defines digital sobriety as "moving from an instinctive or compulsive use of digital systems to a more controlled use of digital technologies".

On the users' side, digital sobriety means renewing equipment more responsibly and valuing the "second life" of devices. Consumers, both individuals and professionals, also have a role to play in the longevity of computers and connected devices, by adopting maintenance practices that extend their lifespan. Good connection habits and configuration tips can also help limit power consumption. Limiting the weight of data and the way it travels is another important lever for reducing the digital footprint on GHG emissions. The question of storage and connected uses is thus crucial in a digital sobriety approach.

What is the environmental impact of digital technology?

The digitization of processes and habits involves a form of virtualization: less paper, centralization of functionalities in smaller and smaller devices, storage in the cloud instead of on disks, etc. However, digital technology is not immaterial and relies on a complex combination of mobile and fixed devices, data centers, cables and power supplies. The Green IT Association estimated in 2019 that the total of the equipment making up the digital universe would cover an area on Earth equivalent to nearly 5 times France: a true digital continent. However, the production of connected objects, televisions, computers, tablets, and smartphones continues to grow and diversify. The indicators, constantly evolving, reveal that digital in its entirety (manufacturing, use, lifecycle) represents in 2022 more than :

  • 4.5% of global energy consumption

  • 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions

  • 6% of global electricity consumption.

The French Agency for Economic Transition (ADEME), in its guide "En route vers la sobriété numérique" (On the way to digital sobriety), puts forward several telling figures to measure the impact of digital uses on the environment:

  • Digital waste represents 20 million tons in France alone

  • More than 100 million smartphones are sleeping in the closets of companies and drawers of individuals

  • Less than 10% of devices are collected for recycling

  • Data centers represent 1% of the world's electricity consumption

  • The manufacture of a 2 kg computer requires 588 kg of raw materials.

A study conducted in France and published by ADEME and the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Communications (Arcep) in 2022 revealed that 78% of the environmental impact of digital technology on greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to the manufacturing stage, while usage accounts for 21%.

How to deploy digital sobriety in your company?

Business applications, mobile working, teleworking, dematerialization of invoices and HR documents, global management software... How can we limit the environmental footprint linked to digital uses in companies, while the increasing digitalization of processes is leading to ever greater consumption of digital resources? The stakes are high, as the carbon footprint of companies is also scrutinized by consumers who are increasingly guided by their environmental conscience when making purchases. The establishment of a sustainable IT charter is a first step towards greater sobriety.

The importance of adopting a sustainable IT charter

Digital sobriety, as a responsible use of digital technology, is an integral part of CSR, corporate social responsibility. The establishment of a sustainable IT charter makes it possible to make employees aware of the impact of digital technology and to establish good practices. Among the responsible uses prescribed by the IT charter of a company or an organization can thus include

  • Optimizing email management (cleaning up the mailbox, grouped mailings, limited attachments)

  • Maintenance of the business phone (protective covers, frequent recharging, updates, memory optimization)

  • The use of an eco-responsible search engine

  • Optimizing data storage (prefer downloading to streaming, favor temporary attachment transfer platforms, etc.)

The Institut Numérique Responsable, a non-profit association that grew out of the Green IT Club, offers companies, communities and organizations a model of sustainable IT charter. The charter summarizes the commitments made by the company and allows it to communicate on its quality approach to its employees, customers, partners and suppliers. It covers 5 major commitments:

Optimizing digital tools to limit their consumption and impact

By taking into account the entire life cycle of devices and software, extending their life beyond their accounting depreciation, limiting the consumption of energy resources and materials, and participating in the development of a circular economy in the management of digital waste.

The development of inclusive and sustainable service offers

Through a responsible purchasing approach, the design or integration of applications that are accessible to all, sized for the company's needs and operating with limited bandwidth connections.

The adoption of responsible and ethical digital practices

By collecting and using data wisely, ensuring equal recruitment in the digital sector, and promoting CSR and responsible digital practices.

Efforts to make digital technology transparent, legible and measurable

Through compliance with standards for collecting, analyzing and sharing data on the impact of ICTs (information and communication technologies), participation in a process for evaluating digital services in relation to real needs, and the use of new tools to ensure visibility and transparency in data analysis.

Encouraging the emergence of new values and behaviors

Through the inclusion of social innovation in the development of new digital systems, the promotion of internal initiatives in favor of well-being in the workplace, the streamlining of processes, the monitoring of performance indicators to achieve CSR objectives and the proposal of areas for improvement.

Find out more about the Sustainable IT Charter.

In conclusion

If digital pollution continues its current growth curve (with a 10% annual increase in its carbon footprint), it will surpass that of motor vehicles in 2035. In addition to its strict environmental impact, through the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacture and use of digital technology, the rise of digital technology also has a significant societal impact.

Digital sobriety also includes careful monitoring of the origin of raw materials and the ethics of supply chains. As major consumers of digital services, companies now have a duty to demand societal and environmental guarantees from their suppliers.

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