In order to adjust to the challenges of the future while remaining competitive, businesses have been questioning their consumption and have started working towards digital sobriety. A recent study from GreenIt discovered that digital activities are accountable for 4.2% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. This result can yet still be mitigated. More and more businesses turn to a circular economy to reduce their carbon footprint and make way for their digital transition. Although businesses are already familiar with the concept of circular economy, digital practices give it a fresh boost. Thanks to Christine Guinebretière, eco-innovation expert and cofounder of Upcyclea, we now know a bit more about how technology can help develop a circular economy within businesses.
How can digitalpractices help todevelop circulareconomy
The impact of digital activities on the environment
The percentage of digital activities in global greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow. It includes emails, data storing, streaming… and all the transactions and exchanges that occur in a company on a digital level. But on top of the environmental impact associated with use, the manufacturing process of devices remains the main driver of carbon emissions. In France, 76% of greenhouse gases are generated during the manufacturing phase of devices, compared to 5% and 2% for the manufacturing of network equipment and computer centers. A single employee is responsible every year for the consumption of 5740 kWh of primary energy, 800 kg of greenhouse gas, and is the source of 3 kg of electronic waste. On an everyday level, it is like throwing away a smartphone every ten days. Digital transition is a true challenge for businesses. It is entirely possible to reconcile energy sobriety and efficiency, notably through a conscious and reasonable use of technology and the development of new business models, such as circular economy.
Christine Guinebretière reminds us that “carbon emissions are the result of a poorly designed human activity; our activity should be integrated within our environment, and to achieve this goal we need to design products that are good for people and the environment – because the two are connected.”
Using technology to implement circular economy in a company
The concept of circular economy means reusing and recycling objects instead of buying new products. Since 2020, the AGEC law (Anti-Waste Law for a Circular Economy) requires that administrations and local and regional authorities buy products that are composed of at least 20% of recycled or reused materials. As a part of the circular economy action plan adopted by the European Commission, the law targets circularity within product design and through efficient waste-to-energy conversion. It also sets forward to include these innovations into the digital realm. Circular economy can also be digital, and technology is a key tool because of its power to always innovate and improve things for the better.
Upcyclea illustrates this through the use of the Cradle to Cradle standard – “the only international certification for healthy and circular products with a positive impact on health and the environment”, states its founder. “Requests for certification are increasing all over the world as major manufacturers are finally fighting greenwashing to prove that their business is sustainable for future extra-financial CSRD reporting, but also to show to their clients that their products will not have a negative impact on health or the environment.”
The cornerstone of the digital circular economy is data sharing: a quicker access to information for everyone improves interactions between players and helps spot potential slowing processes. Improving communication within business and between businesses saves time and reduces the pollution caused by Internet activity. AI can also prevent waste and can help distribute resources where they are needed. For example, Upcyclea’s platform enables its users to design waste-free buildings through the use of data: its collection of circular passports and database can be used to select the best materials based on their environmental performance (and big data). Manufacturers themselves can enter their information on the platform, which emphasizes the collaborative aspect of the platform – echoing the way that circular economy works.
From this collaborative dimension results autonomy, thanks to digital and simplified access to data. Thanks to these new tools, new professions, such as resource management, are emerging. Christine Guinebretière explains that “resource management, as opposed to waste management, can be part of the purchasing or the quality department. Resource Managers will be responsible for the products’ quality, the materials used by the company and the way they are managed. Resource management is about to become a very important position within companies.”
Circular economy practices can also be operated on digital platforms. For instance, SUEZ launched in 2017 a digital marketplace called Organix. It links players from various fields to ensure that what some see as waste can be valuable to others (green waste, unsold foods, farming products…). Such an initiative can be regarded as a model that businesses can implement within their offices to encourage trading rather than buying new products.
Digital activities have to be transparent to enable digital sobriety. Blockchain technology drives the digital circular economy. It is a decentralized, unforgeable digital register that saves all transactions. It can accurately trace products and transactions and thus helps to avoid waste and fraud. It also guarantees the quality of products and materials which were not necessarily reused before because of the lack of certainty regarding their quality, like electronic phone pieces or waste from the construction industry. Mining servers used to create blockchains are generally quite energy-consuming. Nevertheless, these processes now evolve to target carbon neutrality with platforms like Tezos and EOSIO using alternative, eco-friendlier algorithms.
Technology is an efficient means for the development of circular economy. Businesses should use it to transform their economic models and mitigate the digital impact on the environment, since ecological transition and digital transition are closely related. Through various platforms and tools, companies can add value to their activity and production, and generate profits instead of waste. Christine Guinebretière draws a parallel with French used car price guide Argus: “When you own a car, you keep it in good condition for safety reasons, but also to sell it at the highest possible value. It should be the same with real estate and other sectors.”