Blog - 2 Jun 2022
6 minute read
Data Transformation
Data Driven Sustainability

Blog

On World Environment Day 2022, it’s important to remind the business world how data and technology can help to make an organisation more sustainable - and ultimately enable us to understand and own our environmental impact.

environmental impact, environmental challenges, data and technology, environmental awareness, data driven sustainability, sustainable initiatives, world environment day, data collection for sustainable development, digital sustainability strategy

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2022-06-01T23:00:00Z

How should you use data to shape your sustainability targets (and ensure you meet them)?

How does data help businesses create measurable impact on their carbon emissions? In this blog, Gabriel Musker, Junior Data Consultant at Ascent, considers the role of data in shaping sustainability initiatives and driving organisational change for the better.

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Data Transformation

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On World Environment Day 2022, it’s important to remind the business world how data and technology can help to make an organisation more sustainable - and ultimately enable us to understand and own our environmental impact. Whether it’s building smart offices, digitising all of your processes, or even devising a carbon calculator to evaluate your potential suppliers, there are a plethora of data-driven solutions to help you take on your environmental challenges. Technology can shape sustainability and drive productivity and efficiency, benefitting your business while advancing your journey to net zero. 

Climate change is a disaster caused primarily by corporations. Global capitalist forces were one of the main drivers for the industrial revolution, and, unsurprisingly, the ongoing hoarding of wealth by a smaller and smaller minority of entities is mirrored by a more and more concentrated group of vast polluters.

Although reducing carbon emissions should be a vital goal for all organisations, increasing sustainability is about more than just saving the planet. There are many ways in which an organisation can become more sustainable, and many business goals which fall under the umbrella of sustainability.

Increasing efficiency. 

Sustainability and efficiency go hand-in-hand, and a great many projects which aim to reduce overheads also have beneficial environmental impacts. For example, minimising the size of your fleet of vehicles will reduce both your costs and your business’ emissions; similarly, building more energy-efficient office buildings will help to save both your utilities budget and the environment.

Additionally, from a cost efficiency perspective, there are plenty of ‘easy wins’ available, such as reducing material waste (and resources spent on disposing of waste) by minimising inefficiencies throughout your supply chain.

Reducing supply chain risk. 

Supply chains can be complex and multi-dependent operations, and looking for ways to improve the sustainability of your operation is a key strategic move to reduce the potential for problems obtaining goods and materials in the long-term.

Over-reliance on ‘cheap and dirty’ supplies, such as natural gas and coal, budget electronic components, or inexpensive plastics (to name a few), can be perilous. Not only are you at the mercy of the finiteness of these resources, but also lawmakers across the globe who are focussed on encouraging businesses to switch to more environmentally friendly suppliers with import tariff hikes and, in extreme cases, bans for goods deemed unsustainable.

Add to this that transporting these cheap supplies from halfway across the globe is not only a huge contributor to pollution, but also a massive gamble, with recent global events such as Brexit, and the recent global pandemic, illustrating quite how perilous massive import and export disruptions can be for any organisation.

Improving customer relations. 

Sustainability and environmental awareness now play a massive factor in how consumers view businesses, and how likely they are to consume (or not consume) products which are perceived to be ‘environmentally-friendly’.

According to a 2021 survey of consumers, almost one in three (28%) consumers claimed to have stopped purchasing certain brands or products because they had ethical or sustainability-related concerns about them.

Additionally, the same survey found that many consumers want brands to take the lead on environmentalism, with 64% of consumers wanting brands to reduce packaging.

We are now in an era where consumers have a wealth of options open to them for almost every product and service. It’s no longer the case that being eco-friendly makes you unique – in fact, it’s those brands who aren’t eco-friendly who stand out.

So how can data help you to actually be more sustainable? 

The key to generating value with data is to correctly frame the problem. Often, business stakeholders can get stuck on the how – ‘let’s use data to do… something?’ – when it’s actually the what that drives value.

In other words, data can help you to be a more sustainable business, but one of the biggest pitfalls you can run into is brilliantly solving the wrong problem. Starting with your outcome –‘I want to become a more sustainable business by…’– and only then focusing on the data is the best way to make sure that you find the right problems, paving the way for you to find the right solutions.

This is essentially the ‘easy’ part of the solution (or at least the cheap part), but it’s so often overlooked, because stakeholders get excited when they hear words like AI or Machine Learning, and they throw money at projects with these words in the title.

For these exact reasons, we’ve seen plenty of projects like this fail – a business will spend loads of money building a data science team who come up with amazing, complicated models, but nobody actually changes their behaviour based on what these models output (because they have no clear business goal), and after six months, the whole team gets scrapped.

What’s the right place to start to avoid these pitfalls? 

We think that a good sustainability goal doesn’t need to be complicated. It could be as simple as saying:

  • ‘I want to reduce electricity use in my offices’, or

  • ‘I want to cut waste across my business’, or

  • ‘I want my customers to engage more with our sustainable initiatives’.

So what are the potential data projects which could help you to achieve these goals? 

  • Building ‘smart offices’ which use IoT (Internet of Things) to centralise and optimise information on (and control of) temperature, energy use, security etc.

  • Automating your manual paperwork handling using NLP (Natural Language Processing) models to optimise overall employee carbon footprint.

  • Collect and analyse sustainability data to help customers understand their own carbon footprint; for example, we’ve recently worked on a ‘carbon calculator’, and a sustainable data exchange website, which have both achieved this goal.

A real-world example. We have recently finished working with a major public service provider to help them improve the sustainability of their waste collection services. Their goal was to reduce their carbon emissions, and their biggest emitter is, unsurprisingly, their fleet of waste collection vehicles. So how did help them to reduce carbon without replacing the entire service of trucks with, for example, electric-powered vehicles? Our top three suggested initiatives, as judged by their potential impact and feasibility, were as follows:

  • Generating and implementing optimised fixed routes for each waste collection team using an intelligent routing algorithm.

  • Building a dynamic routing system, whereby a piece of software monitors the progress of collections each day and automatically re-directs vehicles to more efficient routes in-flight.

  • Reducing the incidence of ‘missed bin’ complaints, which the company are obligated to go back and pick up, by providing real-time analytics to the crews on the number of bins collected so far on the run as compared to normal.

Using a combined data science and consulting task force, we helped them to select a top priority initiative and delivered a proof of value, demonstrating that a full-scale implementation of that initiative would likely reduce their carbon emissions by hundreds of thousands of kilograms. We also modelled some other potential impacts of a full implementation, and found that, in addition to the reduction in CO2 emissions from their fleet, successful delivery of the project would also provide all of the additional benefits I’ve mentioned above:

  • The company will save tens of thousands of pounds on truck fuel, vehicle maintenance, and crew overtime.

  • They’ll become less reliant on petrol/diesel (since they’re using less of it) and they can re-invest the money they’ve saved into more renewable vehicles.

  • Their new, more efficient service will be quicker and hence cause less overall disruption to residents, improving their customer relations.

Clearly, none of this is easy to achieve, and often, the biggest hurdle to overcome for a project like this can be convincing your key stake holders that sustainability goals are worth pursuing. I’m afraid we don’t have a magic solution for that, but we do know that when it comes to data and data science, once you decide on a sensible goal, there is a whole world of possible solutions to help you get there. So this World Environment Day, take some time to look inwards – you won’t have to look too far to find opportunities to drive sustainability using data within your organisation.

Gabe Musker

Junior Data Scientist

Ascent

As a Junior Data Consultant at Ascent, Gabe is a creative and confident communicator of complex concepts, with a strong technical grounding in data and statistics.

He mainly focuses on data literacy, utilising his proximity to education to bring a fresh, unique perspective to the team and customers alike.

He also has a deep knowledge of data science and machine learning concepts, which he has brought into discussions about strategy with customers in order to help provide them with clarity around their best route forwards.

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