Sustainability in IT: Do good and talk about it

Energy consumption through digital products is increasing. To counteract this trend, more and more IT companies are focusing on sustainability – however, the public often does not notice it at all. It is worthwhile to put your own commitment in front of the curtain.

Guest post The term “sustainability” has been around for over 300 years. At that time he described a type of forest use in which no more wood is removed than can grow back. Today it is much broader: In addition to the sustainable use of resources, sustainability also includes social and societal aspects. When a company speaks of sustainability, it must take three dimensions into account: economy, ecology and social issues.

Author image: Ann-Kathrin Gräfe (Image: dot.Berlin)Ann-Kathrin Gräfe, the author of this article, works at dotBerlin, the operator of the top-level domain .berlin. dotBerlin has been concerned with sustainability for many years and is the first domain registry in Germany to publish a sustainability report (Image: dot.Berlin).

  • Economy: What can be operated sustainably is economically sustainable. Companies that do not want to maximize profits quickly, but have long-term goals and develop meaningful projects, are considered to be economically sustainable.
  • Ecology: Ecological sustainability is about the environment. Companies should campaign for the conscious use of energy, water and finite raw materials. In addition, only as many non-renewable raw materials should be extracted from the earth as can be replaced by renewable raw materials.
  • Social issues: Social sustainability puts people at the center. Its dignity and free development of its personality must not be denied to anyone. In terms of companies, social sustainability means, for example, fair pay, the opportunity for training and further education, and free professional development.

Sustainability also plays an increasingly important role for consumers. As early as 2018, the market research company YouGov found out in a study that 88 percent of those surveyed are taking measures to live more sustainably. It should come as no surprise that this group prefers to buy products from companies or use services that are important to them. But how do potential customers find out about their own commitment?

The sustainability reports of large companies are well known, for example, about their own research department, the pension program for employees or the company kindergarten. Content like this and a comprehensive structure ensure that smaller companies in particular see sustainability reports as a luxury that they cannot afford themselves. The courage for sustainability is worth it! If you write down your sustainable goals and achievements in writing, you can identify weaknesses, concentrate on them and thus do better business. In addition, companies that take a clear position strengthen the relationship with their customers. Last but not least, access to new target groups improves competitiveness.

Benefits of sustainability in companies (Image: dot-Berlin)

How do customers find out about sustainability?

The good news: It doesn’t have to be the “big” sustainability report – with the help of a so-called sustainability report, the sustainability of companies can be determined just as easily and communicated to the outside world. In principle, the report works in exactly the same way as the report: It informs a company’s stakeholders about its economic, ecological and social aspects and can therefore be used well to strengthen a company’s image. In contrast to the report, the authors of a sustainability report have more freedom – they can determine where to focus.

The guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) provide good support for preparing the sustainability report. The GRI is a non-profit organization that supports the sustainable engagement of companies. It has developed a framework that companies can use to measure their economic, ecological and social performance. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also provide guidance. They were adopted in 2015 as part of the so-called Agenda 2030 and are intended to enable a decent life worldwide and to permanently preserve the natural foundations of life. Companies can use the SDGs to read how they position themselves in relation to them and how they help to achieve the global sustainability goals.

Effort and costs

Creating a sustainability report is not a task that can be done on the side. And it shouldn’t either – after all, a good report can have a positive long-term impact on a company’s external image. A thorough research of all required data and background information is recommended right from the start. They form the basis not only for the first, but also for all subsequent reports. While it can take around half a year to produce the very first sustainability report, the effort for the new editions is reduced.

In terms of costs, very different results are possible. Of course, personnel costs arise for all those who are entrusted with the preparation of the report – therefore sufficient resources should be planned here. In addition, costs may arise for service providers such as graphic designers as well as for the measures that (new) customers should draw attention to the report. Last but not least, the financial outlay depends on whether the sustainability report should be printed or only digital. Because it is more sustainable, the online version is now common.

In 6 steps to the sustainability report

In total, six steps are necessary to prepare a meaningful and comprehensive sustainability report:

(1) Current status:

At the beginning of the reporting process there is an analysis of the current status: Which company areas, processes and products are there and which values ​​can be used to analyze them for sustainability? Where are you already good – and where is there a need for action? Not only your own perspective should be taken into account here, but also that of the various stakeholders. Stakeholders are all organizations or people who have an influence on a company or are affected by its activities.

(2) Basic statement:

Develop an understanding of how your company defines sustainability and which image your report should convey accordingly. This can run like a thread through the report. Pay attention to a balanced picture: No company has only strengths – those who do not hide their weaknesses show transparency and increase their credibility.

(3) Stakeholders and key topics:

According to the GRI, only those topics should be included in the report that are essential for you and your stakeholders. To find out which points are really important, you can create a materiality matrix. This presents all essential topics clearly and helps with orientation. The topics at the top right are essential and should be included in the report.

Materiality matrix for sustainability (Image: dotBerlin)

(4) Data and information:

Once all the main topics have been defined, collect the necessary figures and data. Take enough time for the collection and derive meaningful information.

(5) concrete goals:

Once you have all the information together, you can use it to derive specific goals for your company. Make sure that these goals and the associated measures are realistic and quantifiable.

(6) Writing, designing, disseminating:

Finally, package your results in attractive texts and pictures. In addition, draw the attention of the media and your stakeholders to your report – because only when you speak about it can customers find out about your commitment.

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