Forget Carbon Footprints: What is Our Data Footprint and What on Earth Can We Do About It?

Faith Lydon 13/10/2021 8 minutes

With COP26 taking off next month and the daily news reports of global temperature rises and ice caps shrinking at an unimaginable pace, efforts to be more sustainable have become increasingly common. But have you ever considered that the tech you use on a daily basis is also contributing to climate change? Luckily Faith, our Insight and Strategy Executive, has done all the hard work of finding out how data and tech is both helping and hindering our environment. 

Take a moment to think about the data you use every day: the blurry eyed scroll through your newsfeed in the morning, the tap of your Apple Pay on the tube, the likes, comments and shares as you settle into your evening on the sofa or maybe the photo you snap when you’re out for that cheeky midweek drink. We use data to document most of our waking moments. It makes up the modern tapestry of our daily lives – but you know this already. Perhaps what you haven’t thought about is how your data impacts your environment – or more specifically, your data footprint.

As digital marketers, tech and data form the basis of what we do. It is vital for us to be able to do our jobs and do them well. At Passion, being more ethical in our field is something we strive towards; it is essential for the future of our industry and the future of our planet. Today we wanted to take a Passionista-style peek into data and tech, exploring how it both helps (eg. big data, satellites and smart devices) and hinders (data farms, e-waste and mining) the environment around us. 

Data Don’ts

1) Data farms

Despite the misleading name, our data isn’t actually stored in a cloud floating somewhere around us in cyberspace: our data is physical. It is tangible and found bleeping away in huge data farms around the world. Your 2017 photos from Corfu might be stored in a data centre in the Netherlands, for example.

Don’t be ashamed if you didn’t realise the full extent of this! Data centres are somewhat shrouded in mystery from the general public. For example, if you wanted to know the physical location of your data you would have to jump through a fair few hoops to get there. This isn’t by accident, as tech giants often want their farms to stay somewhat elusive… perhaps to hide what we’re about to uncover.

So what is happening? These sprawling data farms use an awful lot of energy and the number of them is increasing. As of 2020, there are 18 million servers deployed globally. Cloud expert Paul Johnson estimates that nearly 2% of the world’s carbon footprint comes from data centres. In fact, mind bogglingly, giant server farms let as much carbon into the air as the aviation industry.

The problem is broadly twofold: the farms need to be powered by a huge amount of electricity, which is generated from fossil fuels, and the servers themselves need significant cooling 24/7, which uses a tonne of energy in the process. We can only question, as our data usage continues to rise exponentially each year and our lives turn even more digital, how we will curb the effects. 

2) E-waste

Can you remember where you put your old tech? Yes, I’m talking about the purple iPod Nano you got in 2011 and maybe even the laptop you’ve recently replaced. Did you bin it? Is it lying somewhere in a drawer covered in dust? It’s hard to remember, isn’t it? We know we separated our recyclable food containers from the non-recyclable, but what we did with all our old electronic devices is foggy to say the least.

This is part of the problem. The lack of information and incentive surrounding what to do with our used up tech is resulting in a huge amount of e-waste. Globally, only 10% of our e-waste is recycled. 

“As for the 90% we don’t recycle, it ends up getting landfilled, incinerated or illegally traded.”

Recycle Coach

Shockingly, the UK is the largest producer of household e-waste in the world, so we have a fair amount of skin in the game. E-waste takes up space in places such as landfills. Here, toxic substances like lead and mercury can leak into water supplies. Sometimes it is shipped off illegally to other countries where there are different laws – meaning it can be burned, causing harmful gases in the atmosphere. What’s too horrific to think about is how often children come in contact with the components without knowing how to properly handle these materials, putting them at risk.

Luckily, experts say there is an easy solution:

“What we need is to be manufacturing products here and keeping a better handle on where materials are within particular products. We should be designing them so they are more readily recyclable – better labelling and construction would allow componentry to be more readily reused and precious minerals rescued from landfill.”

Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum

3) Mining

Despite what we are led to believe, mobile phones don’t just pop out of Apple and Samsung factories on some sort of Willy Wonka-style production line. In fact, they are made with raw materials much the same as other household products.

“Building a new smartphone – and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them – represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade.”

Mark Wilson, Fast Company


The issue with this, of course, is that no one has one smartphone for an entire decade. The tech gods compete every year, churning out their brand-spanking new – but only slightly different – models to us mere mortals.

There is an issue of overconsumption and planned obsolescence in the tech industry: we are being sold an idea of newness, of glamour, that is often hard to resist, and designs are only getting sleeker and sexier. The more we buy, the more we use. Critic Mark Wilson points out how all our data issues are part of the same problem:

“Mobile apps actually reinforce our need for these 24/7 data servers in a self-perpetuating energy-hogging cycle. More phones require more servers.”

Essentially, the more data we consume and tech that we eventually chuck, the more raw materials are mined, the more e-waste is generated and the more data farms sprout up like daisies around the globe. It is a data pandemic of epic proportions.

Data Dos

Phew, okay – time for some good news! Despite all of the above, technology and data can do us some good. 

1) Smart devices

Over the last 10 years, smart devices have revolutionised the way we operate, from the spookily talkative Alexa in our kitchens to aiding global issues such as climate change and endangered wildlife. On a personal level, we are starting to see devices like smart meters in our homes, putting us in control of our own sustainability.

On a larger scale, huge infrastructure changes such as smart grids are in construction. According to Dell, smart grids will help to avoid overproduction, allow for better battery technology (which, in turn, will assist with the storage of renewably sourced energy) and may start to automatically signal appliances to shut off to conserve power. Astoundingly, by 2030, smart grid technologies might help us reduce carbon emissions by 58% compared to levels from 10 years ago. 

Smart devices are already being used to help wildlife, with a great impact:

  • Smart collars embedded with GPS meters and sensors are being used to keep track of endangered species in the wild.
  • SIM-based collars in particular can be used to reduce human-animal conflicts.
  • Drones can be used to watch endangered species and track poachers. In fact, in Gambara National Park in Africa, elephant poaching has reduced by 97% following the implementation of location intelligence that allows dedicated surveillance teams to continue to track and monitor each animal 24 hours a day.
  • Robot jellyfish are set to help coral reefs. Researchers at the universities of Southampton and Edinburgh have just released the latest aquatic robot – the robot jellyfish – which is designed to safely explore endangered coral reefs. Are we living in a real-life sci fi film?!

2) Big data

Big data is almost what it says on the tin. You know all that data mentioned previously that’s stored away in those sprawling farms? Big data is a way to understand, analyse and codify this information. The technology available now means these data sets can be analysed thoroughly, revealing patterns and relationships that simply couldn’t be formed with less data:

  • Data is being collected on air pollution, which can identify where pollution has occurred and ways to reduce it.
  • Data is also being used for conservation, helping with the migration of animals such as birds.
  • Big data can be useful to governments and businesses, allowing them to help optimise their use of resources such as lighting and energy in buildings.
  • Data can be used to strengthen the competitiveness of renewable energies in relation to fossil fuels. For example, wind power and hydroelectric power can be better analysed and utilised to avoid leaks.

The question remains though, is it actually being used enough in this way? Perhaps not at the moment, but it could be an extremely powerful and useful tool in the future.

3) Satellites

It’s good to know space hasn’t just become Elon Musk’s playground, isn’t it? We’ve had a lot of satellites floating above us for decades, but in the last 10 years they have improved rapidly in terms of navigation, telecommunication and observation technology.

Satellites orbiting Earth now can monitor forests, methane emissions, glaciers, sea levels and many other parts of the climate. They are helping scientists and researchers literally have a bird’s eye view on climate change in real time, allowing them to pinpoint and investigate issues on a global scale. Satellites can also be preventative, and have previously stopped the spread of wildfires and warned us of extreme conditions such as hurricanes and earthquakes, resulting in human lives being saved. 

Overall they are incredible data resources. However, an issue arising into public consciousness is the amount of satellites in the atmosphere and how they could create space junk.

The Takeaways

It’s a lot to digest, isn’t it? Can someone put the kettle on? 

Technology and data are the hallmark of modern living. We are living in the digital age of discovery and with it has come incredible highs – and serious lows. We can see astonishing developments in scientific discovery through the use of data, helping us solve issues that we would never have thought possible even 20 years ago. But with this innovation has come insidious consequences to our planet that we must face head on.

In many ways, technology and data feel like somewhat of a catch 22: the more data and technology we have, the more intelligent we become about the issues facing our planet, yet the more we consume and the more we damage the environment. You see the problem? 

But actually, the problem isn’t really data or tech. The issue comes down to us. It is the overconsumption and overindulgence in resources that is at the crux of modern living. Data is incredible and life changing – we just need to not overdo or overuse it. After all, many of the data solutions we have were created in the first place to solve human-made problems like the sea levels rising, the ice caps melting and wildfires spreading. We are in a cyclical turmoil of our own creation, Frankenstein and his monster of the digital age. So how are we to solve it? 

Unfortunately there’s not an awful lot we can do about, but here are some tangible things we can all do to help:

  • Avoid buying new tech unless you actually need it
  • Install a smart meter in your home
  • Research where to recycle old tech
  • Delete old pictures (you don’t need those 20 blurry photos of the ground from a night out in 2011) 
  • Turn tech off at night in offices

Maybe we can’t save the whole planet, but we can damn well try. After all, every little helps.

If you’d like to work with an ethical digital marketing agency that cares about the environment, get in touch with our team today. We love working with brands and businesses that share our values, and helping them spread their messages of eco-conscious living and environmental awareness with the world.