Always more. This is the imperative that we have integrated for decades with technological development. But today, the time has come for sobriety, both in terms of energy and materials. Going backwards? Not at all. When it comes to digital frugality, we are talking about doing better with less, through accessibility, inclusion and eco-design.
Digital technology would account for up to 8% of greenhouse gases in France in 2030 at the current rate according to The Shift Project (that's much more than the civil aviation sector). If digital was a country, it would have 2 to 3 times the ecological footprint of France (Greenit.fr). However, because it is invisible and because we do not directly establish the link between digital and ecological transition for their business, the digital impact is often underestimated or even ignored.
Digital Technology : an invisible footprint?
We are all guilty when it comes to digital and climate. In the same way the movie "Don't Look Up" shows the “media effect”, the impact of digital technology is a trending topic that deflates quite quickly, and very few actually act on it. The good news is that the subject has now entered the political and media arena. The bad news is that what is "hype" is often misused. The challenge is not to lose control and be in cosmic denial in order to really change the situation.
It is true that the word sobriety is often associated with the fact of "doing less", but we would like to draw your attention to the concept of frugality, which implies above all the idea of "doing better" (understanding, measuring, virtuous innovation) with less (reducing, avoiding and compensating). Moreover, the word frugality has a joyful connotation that rhymes with simplicity and creativity, which seems to us to be more in line with our philosophy at fruggr (hence the name).
For the last twenty years, digital technology has become an integral part of our lifestyles and we are becoming more and more aware of its ever-increasing impact. However, we still talk about "dematerialization". However, the impacts of digital technology are anything but immaterial... and this is often what causes confusion between ecological transition and digitalization. In reality, in the face of climate change, we must first and foremost reduce our overall consumption of raw materials (metals, energy) and our environmental toxicity before considering recycling or offsetting our carbon footprint. Here is why.
1. Digital pollution, environmental impact of digital technology, what are we talking about?
To better understand it, we must first define the problem in itself:
The ecological or environmental footprint is an indicator that counts the pressure exerted by human beings on resources and nature. Measured in "global hectares", it measures the surface area it takes to **produce the resources necessary for an individual, a population or an activity.
**(Source: Institut du Numérique Responsable).
The ecological footprint is therefore not only the carbon footprint (which evaluates the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions). A 2020 study by ADEME and ARCEP defines the environmental impact of digital in a much broader way, specifying the different ways in which digital technology is toxic and pollutes the environment. Its environmental impact of in France is revealed for the first time via 12 indicators:
- Depletion of abiotic resources - (fossil, mineral & metal)
- Carbon footprint
- Ionizing radiation
- Fine particle emissions
- Ozone creation
- Raw materials
- Waste generation
- Primary energy consumption
- Final energy consumption
This study also highlights the significant environmental impact of the manufacturing phase on the depletion of natural abiotic resources (metals & minerals) and on the carbon footprint, and of the use phase on the depletion of natural abiotic resources (fossils) and ionizing radiation.
We can add to these environmental impacts the energy footprint of digital technology. Digital technology consumes 56 TWh per year in France, which represents 12% of electricity consumption and 3% of final energy consumption. User equipment (computers, tablets, smartphones, internet boxes) accounts for three-quarters of digital energy consumption (45 TWh). (Source: notre-environnement.gouv.fr)
We cannot possibly consider continuing the mining rush of the 20th century, and this for a reason purely related to our own survival. Our growth model is based almost exclusively on increased mining. As decried by Aurore Stéphant, mining geologist and co-founder of the association SystExt, whose mission is to put an end to our techno-environmentalist fantasies about the mining industry. She claims that the younger generation is being lied to by the myth of dematerialization. SystExt released a report in 2022 that shows the socio-economic and environmental ravages of the mining industry (a predatory and dangerous industry). According to her, we must make choices and drastically reduce our consumption of metals. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, historian of science, technology and the environment and researcher at the CNRS, also believes that this story of transition is a delusion, as if in one fell swoop we could switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
"The more coal you consume, the more wood you consume, the more oil you consume, the more coal you consume... The challenge is to succeed in breaking these symbioses and synergies between energies and materials. This brings us back to a big question: how long will it take for renewables to extract themselves from the fossils that gave birth to them?"
(Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, French historian of science, technology and the environment)
And this is where sobriety comes into play!
2. How to apply digital sobriety?What we call digital sobriety is the reduction of our environmental impact
But how to involve everyone in a degrowth movement? It doesn’t sound very exciting. But to mobilize the troops, you always need a desirable common horizon, something positive, in addition to a simple and effective plan. That's why we like the word "frugality", which advocates more simplicity and quality, rather than focusing only on quantity.
In its MOOC on responsible digital, INR proposes a methodology with 5 key principles:
Understanding the importance of awareness
The first step is awareness. If all the actors are not aware of digital sobriety, nothing really changes, because you cannot change what you are not aware of. It is therefore very relevant to start by training yourself and your teams, and then move on to the implementation stage. However, just as the fight for road safety was, we will not reduce our digital pollution by focusing only on user behavior. We first need to change our mindset, inform and educate ourselves, so that we can start by understanding the issue, following the example of one of the most advanced brains in complex problem solving:
"If I had one hour to solve a problem, I would take 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions." Albert Einstein
Measuring, step by step
Just as peeing in the shower will not be enough to meet the challenge of the century, our behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg. To become aware of your impacts in a very concrete way, you must evaluate and quantify them.
To start, you can separate your actions by item. Workstations, printing, architecture, data centers and digital services. The idea is to perform a complete audit of your footprint by emission item (workstations, printing, architecture, data centers and digital services). Assessing your digital environmental footprint is possible with Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). A complete audit of your infrastructure and a precise definition of performance indicators (for example, by using an ESG Framework such as the SDGs, or an ISO standard) allows for a better choice of energy, metals, and the work required to manufacture a product, through eco-design and also by thinking about the end of its life cycle.
Here is a summary of the areas of improvement that you can apply per workstation. It will then be a matter of avoiding, reducing and compensating for each emission item.
A useful memory aid is the 5 rules: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and finally Give back to the Earth. This rule, which comes from the Zero Waste movement and is applied to the digital world, is very practical. It allows you to quickly identify the actions you can take to reduce your impact. Keep it in mind throughout the process.
2.1. At the workstation
1/4 of the consumption could be avoided with the following good gestures:
What you can do:
- Choose equipment with eco-labels and energy labels (e.g. 80 Plus and Energy Star) and/or eco-designed and/or refurbished equipment
- Activate the energy-saving options of the computer's operating system.
- Enable sleep mode or turn off computers when not in use
- Negotiate extended warranty and availability of charging components
- Facilitate desktop virtualization through telecommuting
- Limit and optimize response to software resource requirements
- Consolidate individual printers into departmental MFPs
- Set printers to eco mode by default
(The financial savings can be from 1 to 10 euros per station per year!)
- You can raise awareness of the use of disconnected mode
- Be careful not to duplicate equipment (rebound effect*) by promoting a Bring your own device policy.
2.1. To the printing system
Cut fewer trees!
The transformation of wood into paper pulp is the most impactful step for the environment in terms of printing systems.
A French employee prints an average of 20 pages per day, that is one tree per year.
What you can do:
- Avoid printing
- Set the printer to save energy, ink and paper
- Set it to duplex mode
- Activate the printing authorizations by badge
- Activate the "Blank pages suppression" mode
- Activate the "proof" mode to limit missed prints
- Refill cartridges rather than buying new ones each time and choose an ink as natural as possible (chemicals are very toxic for the environment, so it is better to choose vegetable ink, which uses oil for example. Still, it must not be an oil that contributes to the deforestation of primary forests!)
For the paper :
Choose your paper taking into account the ecolabels (FSC, PEFC), to avoid encouraging deforestation and clear-cutting by printing your last exchange of emails with the CSR manager of your box ...)
Choose your font carefully: The University of Wisconsin has saved thousands of dollars per year by replacing the Arial font with Century Gothic. Another example is Garamond, which is even more economical than Century Gothic, Times New Roman and Connexion, but you can do even better with Ryman Eco or Ecofont fonts, which were created according to ecological criteria. You can also reduce ink by using gray instead of black.
Did you know?
- E-mails represent 10 to 38% of the printing volume
- 16% of printouts are never read and 65% could be read on a screen.
- ¼ of printouts are thrown away within 5 minutes of printing
- Water consumption and chemical pollution during the paper manufacturing process are the main impacts of printing on recycled paper
2.3. Architecture and ecodesign to design accessible digital services with a better ecological footprint
The best architecture is the one you don't create!
For example, try using only one service for IT trouble tickets, or one application for leave and payroll... instead of five!
Find a compromise between modularity and efficiency.
Digital sobriety starts at the very beginning of the process, when you want to meet a need and when you design your digital service. Better safe than sorry, this saying also applies to digital.
Let's avoid creating obsolete software where most of the time, only half of the functionalities are used, are not accessible or inclusive and, on top of that, consume a lot of energy.
How can we do this?
60% of improvements are related to functional and technical design
15% are related to development
25% are related to hosting
- Evaluate and model the impacts
- Choose one of the responsible digital repositories
Digital Responsibility Frameworks, where to start? | Fruggr
- Train yourself and your teams
- Implement best practices
- Follow up on the implementation of your action plan
The 3U rule
There are different approaches to digital sobriety. The simple things are often the best. For eco-design, consider the 3U rule: Useful, Usable, Used. This very simple rule allows you to ask yourself good questions beforehand.
Is this feature useful? Does it meet the needs of the users, or is it just a convenience? Is the feature usable? Is the design ergonomic, adapted to different usage modes? Is this feature used? Will it really be used by users?
2.4. In data centers
What you can do:
- Pool physical production environments
- Uninstall unused infrastructure in the hosting rooms
- Take a hardware inventory
- Improve the layout of IT equipment rooms
- Implement a free-cooling and free-chilling system
- Choose green and renewable electricity suppliers (ideally French)
- Request a GHG reporting from suppliers and service providers
- Ask for the EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) of the equipment you buy
However, beware of the rebound effect, which cancels out all our efforts (Rebound effect: when technological improvements increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, resulting in increased demand and consumption of this resource instead of decreasing it).
Indeed, even though the impact of data centers has decreased considerably in recent years, our consumption continues to increase exponentially! Of course, this rebound effect is a response to demand.
2.5. While broadcasting content
What you can do:
The dissemination phase consists of thinking about the indirect footprint of your digital services during the marketing and communication phase. This is usually done through websites and social networks. When it comes to communication and marketing, too, you must think “systemic impact”.
2.6. While using digital goods and services
In 2022, according to We Are Social, French people will spend on average (per day) :
- 5h34 per day online
- 2h19 hours via our phones
- 1h46 on average every day on social networks
- 3h19 per day watching broadcast or streaming TV
- 1h06 reading print or online media
- 55 minutes playing on their video game consoles and 29 minutes listening to podcasts.
- Every week, 77.6% of French Internet users aged 16-64 watch online videos (34.6% music videos, 26.6% tutorials, 20.4% livestreams, 19% funny videos or memes and 16% vlogs and influencer videos).
The numbers speak for themselves: digital is anything but virtual, its impact on the planet is very real. We are therefore at a time of choice.
To reduce the negative impact of our uses, we can think about:
- Avoid buying a new smartphone every year. You can visualize the impacts of the smartphone with this infographic. https://multimedia.ademe.fr/infographies/smartphone-version-ademe/
- Buy refurbished digital equipment
- Have a more responsible use behavior (by managing your mailbox, by reducing the number of hours spent on the internet, streaming - better to download videos and movies than to watch them in streaming - loading our documents on external hard drives rather than on the cloud, by unplugging the box and the terminals at night, by putting our devices in "energy saving" mode etc.)
- Try to create a lifestyle that includes disconnection time to do positive impact activities and limit your dependence on technology.
Question: Should we read on screen, on a reading device, or in print? A study by ADEME (Environmental and Energy Management Agency) on this subject answers that it depends on the number of books read per year.
"You need to reach 50 books for each additional book on an e-reader to have less carbon impact than the new paper format, and even more if you take reading a second-hand book as a comparison" explains ADEME
Are eco-actions and good practices enough? Let's be clear: no**. However, our uses, choices and behaviors play an essential role and, just as in other sectors, our societal choices are the basis for the fight against climate change. If 4 to 13% of digital pollution comes from our uses, this is not at all negligible. On the contrary, a more reasoned use will reduce the impact of the other two emission items (because we will stabilize the demand). The main effect of our use behaviors is the rebound effect.
When it comes to usage, the main thing to do is to raise awareness and educate. The good news is that there is a whole set of good practices to apply, which ADEME, INR, INRIA, CIGREF, ARCEP, the government (DINUM, MINUM, etc.) as well as several associations (NegaOctet, etc.), agencies (Lucie, etc.) and think tanks (The Shift Project, etc.), present through all the resources they make available to the general public on responsible digital technologies.
2.7. At the end of the life cycle of your equipment
Last but not least is the end-of-life stage. This is the point where terminals enter the "waste" category and this is where we are most at fault. Why not look for a way to avoid the pollution caused by this categorization?
What you can do:
- Adopt a frugal mindset, to limit waste
Obsolescence is the fact that a good or a service... is progressively outdated or is perceived as such.
About 3.1 million computers are sold each year in France, the equivalent of more than 8,400 computers per day. (INR) With 4.5 billion users, the figures become dizzying!
- Avoid buying unnecessarily or buy more sustainably right from the IT services purchasing phase (60 to 80% savings on the price of new equipment!). Digital technology can be a great lever for the circular economy. Today, there are solutions to reuse terminals as this is part of the French government's responsible digital roadmap. It is now possible to rent equipment or to reuse reconditioned terminals.
Some useful links
- Commown https://commown.coop/
- Ateliers du bocage : https://ateliers-du-bocage.fr/
- Circular IT : https://circularitgroup.com/fr/
- Recondition your old phone
Only 15% of phones are collected for recycling. And before thinking about recycling, try to have your phone repaired, to give it a second life! Where to recondition your old phones ? https://www.jedonnemontelephone.fr/
It is also possible to encourage the use of personal telephones in the professional context (Bring your own devices - BYOD), for example by encouraging the purchase of equipment at the end of a leasing contract by offering attractive rates to employees.
When it comes to choices: the synergy effect of responsible digital technology
When an organization embarks on a responsible digital approach, strangely enough, a nice synergy effect usually ensues. Why? Because it links the raison d'être (the meaning, the Why) to the operational, which gives a sense of power to the employees internally. Some of them take ownership of the subject and take initiatives themselves, enthusiastic about being able to act for the climate. We must not cut them off! On the contrary, do not underestimate the power of digital frugality on internal motivation and its multiplier effects on your business.