Measuring the digital eco footprint

“It’s like peeling an onion” was how Nordic Morning CTO Arto Salminen summarized a presentation by his colleague, controller Mika Ruuskanen, on the environmental impacts of the Group’s digital communications and how to calculate them.

The innermost layer of the “onion” is comprised of the internal infrastructure, such as offices, computers, Nordic Morning’s own servers and external servers to the extent that we use them. The next layer includes digital communications between the Group and its stakeholders, such as incoming and outgoing e-mails, phone calls and text messages. The outermost layer consists of the digital services provided by Nordic Morning.

“We can currently calculate the environmental impact of the innermost layer, with the exception of external servers,” Mika Ruuskanen says. “For digital communications, we can report on volumes, such as our outgoing e-mails and phone calls, but not their environmental impacts. For services, we can calculate the footprint generated by our related production activities.”

Arto Salminen adds: “We can also report on our electronic waste, which is all delivered to Kuusakoski for recycling and appropriate disposal.”

According to Ruuskanen, Nordic Morning is “just getting started” in determining its digital eco footprint. He hopes the Group will develop the capacity to at least calculate and report on environmental data within its own sphere of influence. This would require data from the parties that operate external servers, but for now, measuring the energy consumption attributable to the Group’s servers is not possible. However, we do know the energy-efficiency figures per server room.

The energy consumption and other environmental impacts of certain activities, such as producing a given digital campaign, can also be calculated to a certain degree of accuracy. This is because the majority of these impacts are generated in the office that plans and implements the campaign. The environmental load of service production can be reduced by a relatively large extent by improving the efficiency of electricity and heat consumption in offices, promoting eco-efficient commuting by employees, and reducing waste.

The environmental impacts that arise from the consumption of the campaign, however, are something that the producer only has limited influence over.

“Digital services are typically not stored on the consumer’s personal computer,” Salminen says. “Instead, they are repeatedly accessed by a mobile device. As network speeds increase and processing power grows, there is a shift to heavier services. Whether that is good or bad for the environment, we just don’t know.”

Ruuskanen adds: “Moreover, the more interesting and attractive a service or product is, the more it is downloaded, used and read. This is also what the service provider wants.” But is this relevant from the environmental perspective?

What is certainly relevant is that all participants in the life cycle of a digital service, from producer to user, should carry out their activities as eco-efficiently as possible. At the global level, the crucial issue is the source of the energy we consume: the more we use renewable energy, the better. Perhaps, in the future, a communications company could inform users of how each of its services can be used with the minimal environmental load. You could compare this to clothing manufacturers: they are not directly responsible for how long consumers use their products, how they wash them, and whether they end up being recycled. But manufacturers can inform consumers of how to wash the clothing with minimal environmental impact, while also promoting the durability and recyclability of the clothes through choices of material and design decisions. One day, an eco-efficiency label may even become a source of competitive edge in digital services.

Text: Sari Kuvaja, Corporate Responsibility Advisor