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

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

Herein lies the problem: According to a United Nations estimate, less than a quarter of all U.S. electronic waste is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills — posing a severe risk to the environment. As enterprises figure out how to conduct business in the metaverse, the increase in data demands has the potential to heighten the electronic waste problem. Additionally, as the metaverse becomes further integrated with the real world, corporate enterprises will be faced with a challenge: preparing for the next stage of digitization, with its associated storage demands, while prioritizing sustainability.

How can enterprises 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.

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5 sustainability lessons for preparing for tech’s next paradigm shift

Step 1: Set climate goals 

Building a culture centered around trust and transparency that accelerates sustainability-related progress has never been more important. The massive amount of data storage needed to develop the metaverse might undermine sustainability goals, based on the rapid growth required. High consumption of non-renewable energy, waste production and CO2 emissions are all real obstacles to a sustainable augmented or virtual reality. As a result, enterprises should commit to sustainable initiatives and agreements that hold their operations accountable, and ensure they’re operating responsibly. For example, the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is an alliance between non-profit CDP, the UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Participants in this initiative are committed to combating climate change in alignment with the latest climate science. Enterprises aiming to reduce their emissions footprint can set reduction targets approved by the SBTi.

Step 2: Rethink your physical facilities

Participating in the metaverse can mean generating massive volumes of data, which brings up the critical question as to where this data will be stored. While high data volumes could result in the construction of more energy-consuming data centers, more local data centers may move their data into the cloud — minimizing the amount of physical data centers. Additionally, large cloud-service providers have been investing heavily in sustainable energy sources. For example, Google is aiming to run data centers on completely carbon-free energy by 2030, and Microsoft has pledged to do so by 2025. 

​​IT-related services, including cloud services, were projected to account for around 3.5% of global emissions by 2020. This all leads to hyper-awareness among enterprises around the sustainability of their manufacturing practices. 

Additionally, the last several years have seen solar energy advance from a frontier technology to a cost-effective solution for enterprises. By investing in solar facilities, enterprises can generate their own power onsite using a renewable energy source, drawing less traditional energy away from the grid and reducing their carbon footprint. In efforts to be more sustainable, enterprises such as Apple and Amazon have retrofitted multiple facilities with solar, and when combined with other renewable energy procurement, these locations now run on 100% renewable energy. 

Step 3: Review products and how they are manufactured 

Many businesses are developing product life cycle assessments to evaluate the overall environmental impact caused by a system of production, use and disposal processes. The goal is to follow a product’s timeline (production, distribution, use and end-of-life phases) and ensure full accountability and transparency. Every part of a product’s life cycle — 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 also include cloud data storage. As more businesses migrate to the cloud, the data center industry has an opportunity to become more climate conscious. Cloud computing entails lower costs per gigabyte and higher data redundancy, so there are good technical reasons for expansion of the cloud. As enterprises work to advance both innovation and accountability, product-level life cycle 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 electronic waste end up in landfills and contaminate soil and groundwater, putting food supply systems and water sources at risk. The proper disposal of products can be resolved through the implementation of recycling programs, or by granting 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 material 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 shipping stores to allow for an easy, environmentally-friendly disposal, with successful programs diverting many tons of waste from landfills.

Step 5: Educate and hold your supplier network accountable 

Annual sustainability reports also present an opportunity to be transparent about your company’s sustainability progress, which fosters 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 ahead

The connections between data storage, electronic waste and emissions will continue to impact the marketplace as regulators increasingly turn their attention to corporate environmental footprints.  Corporate America is at an inflection point where companies must be mindful about the way they do business or risk long-term headwinds. So as companies contemplate how to do business in a world that is demanding more data, more storage, and is generating more waste, we should constantly make sustainability a priority in the next big tech 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 senior director of corporate sustainability and assistant general counsel at Western Digital.

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