January 19, 2023

Digital Sustainability: What is it and why does it matter?

Author: team-karma-metrix

Digitalization is one of the most globally developing phenomena, especially in recent years. IT (Information Technology) has completely disrupted the way we communicate and work, changing our daily habits.

Even in our homes, digital devices have made everything different, affecting the way we manage our leisure time, many of the effects of digitization were unthinkable just a few years ago.

For both businesses and citizens, the development of new digital technologies has enabled the abandonment of old production and communication systems that have become costly in economic and environmental terms.

But like every major change in history, there are side effects.

Introduction to digital sustainability

The rapid rise of digital systems has resulted in an increase in the amount of data that needs to be analyzed and stored, which in turn has led to an exponential increase in the energy consumption of servers and data centers.

This growth accounts for up to 7% of global electricity consumption to date[1].

This is a real problem of digital pollution that requires major countermeasures; just as many other sectors are adopting policies to reduce their environmental impact (automotive, construction, fashion…), the digital sector must necessarily go in the same direction.

What is digital sustainability

Speaking then of practices to reduce the digital footprint, we must also introduce and analyze the concept of digital sustainability.

Although little known, it is a fundamentally important topic that, fortunately, someone has already begun to care about. Stefano Epifani, professor of Internet Studies at the Sapienza University of Rome, defines digital sustainability as “that sustainability that defines the ways in which digital technology will have to be developed so that it contributes to the creation of a better world, both with respect to its nature and with respect to its instrumental role toward environment, economy and society.[2]

Digital sustainability is therefore a key element in the management of digital products and services. Therefore, it is important to increase environmental awareness in this area so that developers and digital designers can be more incentivized to provide more energy-efficient platforms.

The green cloud computing

A clear example of digital sustainability is green cloud computing, that is, the set of strategies put in place to minimize energy consumption (and the resulting environmental impact) of cloud data storage systems.

Green cloud computing is a key element in reducing corporate environmental impact; in fact, EU data centers accounted for 2.7% of electricity demand in 2018 and are expected to reach 3.2% by 2030, according to a European Commission study on energy-efficient cloud computing technologies[3]. But how does green cloud computing work?

From a digital sustainability perspective, cloud service providers can first plan to source energy from renewable energy to power their data centers, such as wind or solar power, along with large banks of batteries to store the energy they collect. Some providers today also use renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset their carbon footprint, receiving a license to declare that data centers use 100% renewable energy.

Cloud providers can also implement their own digital sustainability by reducing waste; through the use of certain software, it is possible to calculate precisely how much electricity is required to run data centers, thus allowing them to maximize energy efficiency, avoiding unnecessary consumption[4].

Why is digital sustainability a little discussed topic?

When we hear about sustainability we are always redirected to more easily observable and tangible phenomena such as waste management, car pollution and the problem of incinerators. But the biggest difficulties are always the most hidden ones, which is why the issue of digital pollution is not often mentioned. On the contrary, during the unfortunate greenwashing campaigns we are unfortunately accustomed to today, it is repeatedly claimed that a product or service does not pollute because “it is online,” as if the digital world had nothing to do with environmental impact.

One of the reasons for omitting the need for digital sustainability is also often due to certain barriers to implementing virtuous practices. In fact, research by The Guardian found four main barriers to reducing the environmental impact of online platforms[5]:

  • Lack of awareness: as mentioned earlier, there is little public awareness of the environmental effects of digital. All digital actions are indiscriminately perceived as positive for the environment.
  • -Lack of transparency and oversight: billions are online movements that cause an environmental impact every day, making it difficult to track every single corresponding CO2 emission.
  • Speed of updating: due to the speed of changes and updates on digital platforms, it is increasingly difficult to detect constants in environmental impact.
  • Lack of assessment tools: many of the current environmental assessment methods of web platforms are inadequate because they cannot assess the evolution of impact over time.

With Karma Metrix we deploy solutions to address all four of these issues, through an accurate calculation of a website’s pollution that allows us to identify strengths and weaknesses to work on in order to minimize environmental impact. At the same time, we disseminate weekly content and information on the topic of digital sustainability in order to raise general awareness of the topic.

How can we reduce the environmental impact of digital technologies?

As individuals, what can we do to minimize pollution from our digital activities? We have compiled below a series of best practices, applicable in everyday life:

  • Limiting the sending of emails only to the actual recipients.
  • Minimize the size of the files we attach, whether via email or Whatsapp (using software such as Compress JPEG).
  • Delete all accounts that we no longer use.
  • Avoid subscriptions to newsletters that do not interest us.
  • Delete disused apps on the phone and pc.
  • Download movies and watch them offline.
  • Turn down the brightness of screens.
  • Use automatic cloud backup only when necessary.
  • Delete all old mail messages.
  • Always unplug when devices are charged.
  • Always try to be connected via Wi-Fi, a connection that consumes less energy.

In conclusion, digital sustainability is an issue that can no longer be avoided; there is still no such thing as a clean Internet. The problem of the environmental impact of digital technologies is real, but all the tools to solve it also exist.

Start by measuring how eco-sustainable your website is !


[1]  Greenpeace, 2017 – Ambrosetti, 2021

[2]  Stefano Epifani, Perché la sostenibilità non può fare a meno della trasformazione digitale, 2020 ce, 2017 – Ambrosetti, 2021

[3]  Europa.eu, Energy-efficient cloud computing technologies and policies for an eco-friendly cloud market, 2018

[4] Lancaster University, Green Computing a contribution to save the environment, 2020

[5] The Guardian, Can the digital revolution be environmentally sustainable?, 2015