Sustainability and the metaverse: 5 considerations for preparing for the next big tech paradigm shift

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Climate concerns have put sustainability at the forefront of business strategy. Organizations have had to consider not just how to do business, but how to do it in a way that has the least impact on our climate. And while sustainable business models are nothing new, they are evolving to keep pace with innovation and adapt to the new ways we work.

The prospect of shifting physical labor, life, and online gaming into the metaverse is exciting. That process, however, will inevitably create significant demand for data storage. As companies prepare for Web3 and consider how to do business in the convergence of emerging technologies, they may end up with massive online footprints that will create an incredible need for data storage, which could lead to more products and more waste if it is not done carefully.

Herein lies the problem: According to a United Nations estimate, less than a quarter of all e-waste in the US is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills, posing a serious risk to the environment. As companies figure out how to do business in the metaverse, the increased demand for data has the potential to add to the e-waste problem. Additionally, as the metaverse becomes more integrated with the real world, corporate businesses will face a challenge: preparing for the next stage of digitization, with its associated storage demands, while also prioritizing sustainability.

How can companies prepare for the metaverse without contributing to environmental waste? This presents an opportunity to examine the sustainability of advanced electronics manufacturing, from the perspective of a data storage provider.

5 Sustainability Lessons to Prepare for the Next Tech Paradigm Shift

Step 1: Set climate goals

Building a culture focused on trust and transparency that accelerates sustainability-related progress has never been more important. The large amount of data storage required to develop the metaverse could undermine sustainability goals, based on the rapid growth required. The high consumption of non-renewable energy, waste production and CO2 emissions are real obstacles for a sustainable augmented or virtual reality. As a result, companies need to commit to sustainable initiatives and agreements that hold their operations accountable and ensure they are operating responsibly. For example, the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is a partnership between the nonprofit CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute, and the World Wildlife Fund. Participants in this initiative are committed to combating climate change in line with the latest climate science. Companies looking to reduce their emissions footprint can set SBTi-approved reduction targets.

Step 2: Reconsider your physical facilities

Participating in the metaverse can mean generating massive volumes of data, raising the critical question of where this data will be stored. While big data could result in building more energy-hungry data centers, more local data centers can move your data to the cloud, minimizing the number of physical data centers. Also, the big cloud service providers have been investing heavily in sustainable energy sources. For example, Google aims to run data centers on completely carbon-free power by 2030, and Microsoft has committed to doing so by 2025.

IT-related services, including cloud services, were projected to account for around 3.5% of global emissions by 2020. All of this leads to a hyper-awareness among companies about the sustainability of their manufacturing practices.

In addition, in recent years solar energy has gone from being a cutting-edge technology to a profitable solution for companies. By investing in solar installations, businesses can generate their own power on-site using a renewable energy source, drawing less traditional power from the grid and reducing their carbon footprint. In an effort to be more sustainable, companies like Apple and Amazon have retrofitted multiple facilities with solar power, and when combined with other renewable energy purchases, these locations are now powered by 100% renewable energy.

Step 3: Review the products and how they are made

Many companies are developing product life cycle assessments to assess the overall environmental impact caused by a system of production, use and disposal processes. The objective is to follow the timeline of a product (phases of production, distribution, use and end of life) and guarantee full responsibility and transparency. Each part of a product’s life cycle – the extraction of materials from the environment, the production of the product, the use phase, and what happens to the product after it is no longer used – can have an impact on the environment. in unique ways.

Gradually, the storage industry has evolved from traditional local disk storage to include cloud data storage as well. As more companies migrate to the cloud, the data center industry has an opportunity to become more climate-conscious. Cloud computing means lower costs per gigabyte and higher data redundancy, so there are good technical reasons for cloud expansion. As companies work to advance both innovation and responsibility, product-level lifecycle impact assessments can inform strategies to effectively balance sustainability with the technological advantages of the cloud.

Step 4: Create a circular economy

Unfortunately, large amounts of e-waste end up in landfills and contaminate soil and groundwater, putting food supply systems and water sources at risk. Proper product disposal can be addressed by implementing recycling programs or by giving consumers the option to recycle their old products. By adopting product take-back programs to help customers recycle old data storage devices, companies can mitigate the risk associated with handling hazardous materials and foster a stronger customer relationship. For example, certain companies have recycling programs that allow customers to ship old products back to the company for free or drop them off at local consignment stores to allow for easy and environmentally friendly disposal, with successful programs diverting many tons of waste from landfills. .

Step 5: Educate and hold your provider network accountable

Annual sustainability reports also present an opportunity to be transparent about your company’s sustainability progress, which encourages accountability (“what gets measured…”). Modern supply chains can be complex and substantial, and a sustainability strategy focused solely on internal operations can miss very significant upstream impacts. That’s why supplier engagement on sustainability issues is vital to an effective sustainability program. Offering e-learning programs that provide training on sustainable business practices, in coordination with organizations like the Responsible Business Alliance, for example, and participating in joint sustainability initiatives can strengthen relationships and amplify sustainability progress at the same time.

Looking to the future

The connections between data storage, e-waste and emissions will continue to impact the market as regulators pay increasing attention to corporate environmental footprints. Corporate America is at an inflection point where companies must reckon with the way they do business or risk long-term headwinds. So as companies contemplate how to do business in a world that demands more data, more storage, and creates more waste, we must make sustainability a constant priority in the next big technology revolution. Because the metaverse may be virtual, but if we don’t find ways to reduce our collective footprints, its environmental impacts could be all too real.

Joshua Parker is Western Digital’s Senior Director of Corporate Sustainability and Deputy General Counsel..

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