Sustainable Software Development

Software is an essential technology for every company that has environmental impacts. Companies that develop software also impact the environment and have a responsibility to run a sustainable business that minimizes both its own carbon footprint and the those of its customers. Thankfully, there are many opportunities for software developers and users of software to improve their sustainability, ranging from purchasing carbon offset credits to simply turning off the computer at the end of the day. Software companies have a growing responsibility to account for their contribution to global climate change, and they can make a big difference with subtle changes in how they operate and with whom they do business – oftentimes broadening their brand appeal and saving money in the process.

Software’s Effect on Sustainability

Software and computing have become virtually synonymous with life in the 21st century. Artificial intelligence, autonomous health devices, self-driving cars, and instant wireless communication have all been brought out of the realm of science fiction and into reality thanks to the unique power of software programs. However, the many modern conveniences and economic benefits of software come with a hefty environmental price tag – primarily in the form of energy consumption. A review by the Digital Power Group estimates that computers, data centers, and networks account for roughly 10% of all electricity consumed worldwide, and this consumption is expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades as software programs become more and more interwoven with our lives and way of life. Let’s look at some of the changes that software companies can make to have a positive impact.

Tip #1: Turn off the computers at the end of the day

Living sustainably often starts in simple places, and it doesn’t get much simpler than turning off the computer at the end of the day. Leaving computers on overnight wastes energy and money, and causes lifespan-reducing wear and tear. Check with IT staff to make sure it’s okay to turn them off, as some computers may be updating or backing up at the end of the day. Be sure to use the computer’s internal Shut Down or Power Down sequence, rather than just using the power button, to minimize the chance of a faulty power down process.

Tip #2: Use energy-efficient computer settings and equipment

Energy-efficient settings reduce the electricity consumed by a computer while it is in use. These settings will often include dimming the monitor brightness, turning off the monitor automatically when the computer has been inactive for a set amount of time, and disabling programs running in the background that eat up power (some apps are set by default to sync or refresh constantly, even when the app is closed). Furthermore, due to dramatic improvements in the energy-efficiency of computer components in recent years, newer computers will generally be able to do more with the same amount of energy. Look into upgrading if possible, but make sure that the computers being replaced are sold or donated, so as to not contribute to the already problematic global E-waste stream. If you do choose to sell or donate old computers, be sure to wipe all sensitive data from them first. Check with IT staff or look online for more information on how to safely and effectively clear the computer’s storage for sale and/or donation.

Tip #3: Operate in a LEED certified building

Working in a LEED-certified building takes some of the guesswork out of building-wide power management. The LEED system rates buildings on a points scale, ranking from Certified to Platinum based on how well they adhere to a strict set of standards that regulate how a building is built, with what materials, and how much energy the building will expectedly consume with HVAC, plumbing, etc when it is in operation. According to a report by CBRE, use of LEED and Energy Star certified buildings as commercial offices is at an all time high – with 5.2% of all office buildings in the U.S. holding a LEED certification, and 11.5% being Energy Star certified. 

Tip #4: Maintain efficient plumbing, lighting, and HVAC

If you’re not looking to change locations, a few housekeeping adjustments can go a long way with the appliances in your building – primarily plumbing, lighting, and HVAC. The EPA estimates that some office buildings can save over a million gallons of water per year, roughly ten thousand dollars in annual utility cost savings, simply by switching to more water-efficient toilets. Similarly, switching out your lighting appliances with energy-efficient LED’s can reduce electricity consumption for lighting by 65-80% – saving considerable amounts of electricity and money. LED lighting appliances also have significantly longer product lifespans, lasting roughly 25 to 100 times longer than their halogen and incandescent counterparts. 

Tip #5 Offer recycling everywhere and use less paper

Having recycling available at all desks, as opposed to the standard trash can, will reduce waste and subtly discourage the use of disposable items. The landfill waste bin should be kept in a central location where it is accessible, but not necessarily as convenient for everyone as the recycling bins. Recycling inappropriate items can contaminate and invalidate its neighboring contents, so make education and engagement on what is and is not recyclable a top priority. Be sure to use clear and visible signage to distinguish the recycling bin and the landfill waste bin. Digital project management programs and word processors can be used to replace printed paper for a number of business functions, and generally increase accessibility and ease of sharing in the process.

Tip #6: Consider working from home

When the work you do can be done from home, remote work is definitely worth consideration. Allowing employees to work from home eliminates the need for energy-consuming transit to and from the workplace, and incrementally reduces energy and water consumption in the office building per each person who works remotely. In some cases, a company that is universally engaged in work from home might even find itself saving money by eliminating the costly office building altogether. Many businesses have found a happy medium in a hybrid system, where some or most of the work is done at home, but critical meetings and similar functions are still held in the office. Digital project management software makes it easy to stay in touch and maintain a healthy workflow, and today’s virtual meetings provide a chance to maintain face time with coworkers.

Tip #7: Use Carbon-neutral servers, hosting, and data centers

Data centers now account for over 1% of all the electricity consumed worldwide, and this will likely continue growing in the years to come as data becomes increasingly cloud-based. Green data centers, powered with renewable energy, provide a novel opportunity to maximize control of your carbon footprint. Software firms can make a significant impact by seeking out these servers and data center services. Web Hosting Canada is one such firm, operating at 100% renewable energy.

Tip #8: Contribute to causes and charities

Charitable giving and volunteer days are a great way to involve your employees in building a better world, and can also provide good team-building experience. Canned food drives and community garden volunteer visits bring the group together to make a positive change that they can often see and feel right away. Dedicating paid time to this demonstrates a legitimate commitment to a sustainable future.

Tip #9: Offset your carbon footprint

While generally regarded as a substitute for making real operational changes, carbon pollution offsetting programs can be useful for companies that don’t have the option to enact the other changes listed above. Purchasing credits from a company that sequesters carbon is an indirect way to contribute and offset some or all of the pollution tied to your business.

Tip #10 Design software with end user power consumption in mind

Although much of the energy consumed in the use of a software program is at the discretion of the end users, developers can still design the software in a way that makes it more energy efficient. Cleaner code with less redundancy is a good example of a simple change that can amount to big energy differences, especially when considering large numbers of users. Incorporating brightness control (e.g. Dark Mode) in the user interface of a program can save a great deal of energy, especially for mobile phone applications. 

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