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responsible procurement digital carbon footprint

Responsible Procurement, Digital Carbon Footprints

In Climate, Moments, Quick Read by Scott

Related to UN SDG:
united nations sustainble development goal - UN SDG  12 united nations sustainble development goal - UN SDG  13
How to reduce our digital carbon footprints

Can Procurement Help?

Since the publication of Exploring Digital Carbon Footprints with JISC, I've created quite a following on the topic. This article is part of a short series to address individual questions on this topic.
Just a moment

How Can Procurement Impact our Digital Carbon Footprint?

A digital carbon footprint represents the total amount of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) attributable to the lifetime manufacture, use and end-of-life of the digital products and services we use. However, the generated CO2e is is not equally distributed across that product lifetime.

The lifetime CO2e of a product or service is typically split into two high-level categories; embodied emissions and operational emissions.

  • Embodied emissions are those that are generated in the manufacture, storage and shipping of the items.
  • Operational emissions are those generated in the lifetime use of the product or service.

The split between the two is typically 80% embodied, 20% operational as mentioned in the previous article.

GHG Scopes 1, 2 and 3

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol defines three scopes of emissions - Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3.

Related: Find out more about the GHG Scopes in this article

For many industries, Scope 3 (indirect upstream & downstream) emissions are by far the largest majority, indeed Apple's Scope 3 accounts for more than 99% of their total reported emissions.

Then of that Scope 3, the Purchased Products and Services category is then often the largest contributor. In the conversations I've had, it's often between 80-90% of the total Scope 3.

That means the digital products and services purchased by procurement could have the single biggest impact on a quest to reduce digital carbon footprints.

Distributed Procurement Impact

While procurement might be the best place to have the biggest impact, the biggest opportunity is to distribute the sustainable purchasing decision making beyond the direct influence of a procurement team.

This is done today for financial control, using tiered purchasing authorities and budget settings. In order for sustainability focused decision making to trickle down through the organisation, managers and individuals need access to sustainability data and guidelines.

This is where one of the challenges pops up in this process - there simply isn't the level of maturity in the carbon data market.

Not yet, but it is coming.

In the meantime, we all need to be comfortable with decision making involving incomplete and often somewhat vague data.

This is much easier said than done, and to help, I created two metrics and an illustration to show how this can be used over time.

The two metrics are :

  • Carbon baselines: This is a frequently updated snapshot of the current digital carbon footprint of the company, division, team, or product line (depending on how it is implemented). The baseline is a best-effort estimate that is intended to be improved iteratively.
  • Carbon incrementals: These are the changes to the baseline that a purchase will have to the baseline.

Together the carbon baseline and carbon incrementals are used to score individual purchasing decisions against, "Do I improve our digital carbon footprint when purchasing laptop A or laptop B...?".

understanding digital carbon footprints a continuous process

There are clearly challenges with this approach at the moment, one of the most significant is the accuracy and reliability of the carbon incremental data. There are, however, technologies and processes that are aiming to help close this gap and improve responsible procurement decision making.

How will this evolve?

From a digital technology point of view, only 20% of the carbon footprint is related to the product's intended use. The rest is baked into the product before it even reaches us, or once it has left our hands.

The baked-in, or embodied emissions will likely decrease as more of the technology supply chain decarbonises. This decline may well be countered by an increase in the variety and volume of digital technologies we incorporate into our lives.

However, if we look to consumer trends to predict corporate direction (see the rise of Apple vs Blackberry in the telecom sector), we can see a few conflating trends that might point to a more sustainable answer:

  1. There is an increased consumer appetite for refurbished and remanufactured devices, as can be seen by the investment into companies like Back Market ($1bn in funding).
  2. The rise of sustainability as a purchasing decision amongst younger generations, and the contagion effect that has on others. (weforum)
  3. Remanufacturing in the electronic and electrical equipment sector is expected to be one of the fastest growing sectors (Eionet Dec 2021 "Contribution of remanufacturing to Circular Economy" report)

In summary, I see a growing value in items with higher sustainability criteria. If this is made more easily accessible with product warranties and performance that are at least as good as the new products (as in the definition of 'remanufacturing'), then the prestige of 'new' will loose ground against 'sustainable'.

The question then, is how manufacturers protect and extend their new product market share? (New products typically account for 25% of an established business' revenue).

What are your thoughts on that?

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Scott is an Independent Technology Analyst, Content Writer and Connector of interesting people. Scott is a technologist at heart, with a history of technology innovation and marketing leadership roles. As the founder of this website and several other businesses, he is passionate about helping technology companies communicate their relevance and awesomeness in a way that engages and excites everybody. Get in touch with Scott here or connect with him on LinkedIn. Learn Scott's tips for content marketing, download his free template here..