The cost of digital: measuring a company’s digital carbon footprint

The cost of digital: measuring a company’s digital carbon footprint
Written by Sam Castledine, Studio Assistant
Posted on Wednesday, 13 September, 2023

Where to begin measuring the digital carbon footprint of a business? This is something we’re making tentative steps to explore, certainly for Knapton Wright as well as our clients. 

As Gerry McGovern explains in his excellent book entitled World Wide Waste, digital stuff comes at an environmental cost. It’s easy to think about “the cloud” being an intangible thing when in reality, it’s large data centres across the globe consuming huge amounts of electricity to store all our cat memes.

Introducing Google Workspace’s carbon footprint report

As a pure coincidence today, I logged into Google Workspace’s admin console today to be greeted by a new report tucked away under the Reporting menu:

A screenshot of the Google Workspace admin menu showing the location of the Carbon footprint report under "Reporting".

This new “Carbon Footprint for Google Workspace” report gives a good overview of how much our use of Google Workspace is emitting carbon, with a breakdown per product on a month-by-month basis:

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The results were a little surprising to me - I fully expected to see the data-hungry video calls made through Google Meet much higher up the list. Instead, it’s our Drive storage and app use which has emitted nearly 3kg of carbon in July 2023. As a rough fag-packet calculation, that’s us planting 12 square meters of wildflowers each year to offset our file storage alone.

You can also get a breakdown of your monthly carbon footprint by scope of emissions:

A screenshot of a monthly carbon footprint report for July 2023 which breaks down our carbon emission into scopes 1, 2 and 3 totalling 4.65501 kbCO2e.

It’s worth noting Google states that the emissions are estimates and “have not been third-party verified or assured” so clearly, they need to be taken with a pinch of salt. They do share their ambitions to improve the quality of the report through complex computations which presumably have an impact themselves. If you wish to learn more about how they measure the emissions, this is a good starting point:

Improving our digital carbon footprint

So how do we go about reducing our emissions using the data from this report? I reckon Keep Britain Tidy’s Stoppit and Tidyup off-of the 1980s had the right idea. We need to stop storing data we don’t need in the cloud data centres, and tidy up what we chose or need to keep. Lots to do here and it’s going to take a cultural change.

This could have a significant impact though. According to TechTarget, up to 90% of a company’s data is unused or stale. It should help reduce unnecessary energy consumption. It should help reduce our co2 emissions. 

Of course, Google Workspace is only one of several digital things we use at KW so there’s much more work to be done to assess our wider company (digital) carbon emissions. We’ll continue to share our experiences* here with the hope that it helps and inspires others to consider the digital impact of their marketing efforts.

PS. If you’re a Microsoft 365 user it appears like there are equivalent reports available in their ecosystem.

*I deliberately didn’t say “journey” as to me, that implies there’s an endpoint, and I really don’t think there is!

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