The effects of climate change continue to wreak havoc and after ringing the alarm bells long ago—demanding more to be done to protect the environment—several organizations have accelerated their green path to a sustainable future.
However, not every path is focused on protecting the environment, with some just painting it green to hide unsustainable practices. A popular term for faking the claims without contributing to the preservation of the environment is called greenwashing.
While big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technologies make IT one of the significant contributors to global energy consumption, such technologies will also play a big part in telling the difference between bona fide green claims and greenwashing, while building trust and transparency.
Here’s how these technologies will help green activists, sustainability specialists, environmentalists and climate experts.
Controversy’s child, artificial intelligence (AI), tops the list. AI’s carbon footprint might be high, but this does not take into account the energy-saving capabilities of AI, which are considerable.
The productivity and efficiency it brings in across several industries comes besides the fact that AI is also helping people understand the difference between green claims and greenwashing. With natural language processing (NLP), early detection of greenwashing can be done by analyzing vast amounts of qualitative data publicly available. These green claims are run through the AI platform that then provides reliable, timely and comprehensive insights into green claims and identifies greenwashing, while generating ESG alerts and identifying related risks.
Big data analytics
Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG-13 mentions “take urgent action to combat climate and its impacts” as climate change is the greatest challenge we face today.
This is where big data analytics comes into the picture. It provides organizations with the ability to access real-time insights across their value and supply chains. Understanding these complex environments, with the ability to take action, ensures efficiency and visibility, which is crucial in improving an organization's sustainability posture, while eliminating greenwashing.
Predictive algorithm tools combined with machine learning and AI, helps companies utilize their data to become more sustainable. ‘Green data’ is used to optimize energy management and resource use, reduce carbon dioxide emissions derived from production, anticipate repair needs and replace machinery monitored using sensors.
Among some of the leading examples are Europe’s green data-generating model Copernicus that is a satellite-based Earth-observation program that calculates the influence of rising temperatures on river flows and provides key data to optimize water resource management, biodiversity, air quality, fishing and agriculture.
Other global green data projects to combat climate change are the US Environmental Protection Agency’s stream catchment data set project, Microsoft’s life-on-Earth project that plans to simulate the entire biosphere, Aqueduct that measures water-related hazards, analyzes water quality and quantity and makes interactive risk maps for the public, the UN’s Global Forest Change that calculates deforestation with high-res satellite imagery and Danger Map that determines pollution levels.
Big data applied to the environment brings in transparency and bridges the digital divide, while improving progress on the SDGs, eliminating greenwashing, helping consumers adopt more sustainable behavior and creating more sustainable value chains.
Secured to the core and transparent, blockchain is a decentralized or distributed ledger where data in the form of transactions or records are stored. Scores of transactions are added in one block and each new block is linked or chained to the previous block, creating a chain of blocks in which every participant or node always holds a copy of the network ledger.
With a “single source of truth” in the form of data, this system develops a trust factor among participants with clarity as none of the transactions can be deleted or edited, eliminating the ability to greenwash. Blockchain brings the “smart contract” concept to the table with its business application and intelligence. The transparency part it brings in is spread across the supply chain where companies can trace the point of origin of a product to where it currently is—making way for sustainable consumerism.
With a variety of use cases and the concept of carbon credits, this technology is helping organizations create the difference between carbon offsetting and greenwashing, eliminating the misleading facts related to greenwashing that are presented to claim investment in sustainability.
It’s important to create avenues for the customers to not only understand what they’re buying, but even after the sales, how they can make the best out of the product, how can they return the packaging and how can they return an empty bottle to get a discounted refill.
Besides reducing the transaction cost related to verification, attestation and certification among others, blockchain brings in transparency to retailers, as well, as they invest in creating green avenues, creating a sustainable partnership between the consumer and the supplier to build a whole ecosystem where information is not only available but easy to understand and consumable.
Sustainability as a business priority
Overall, companies need to make the right move and prioritize sustainable initiatives to survive and thrive moving forward. Employees, customers and investors now expect tangible and measured sustainable and green claims, while there are economic perks attached migrating to the green side.
Governments are also providing more teeth for regulators looking to clamp down on greenwashing. The UK Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, for example, is likely to empower regulators against companies that make misleading environmental claims, with fines of up to 10% of global turnover for breaching consumer law. Even the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have started cracking down on greenwashing in advertising, recently issuing reprimands to leading organizations.
Undeniably, sustainability is now a business priority and will be viewed as benchmark for successful businesses. And now there are tools and technologies that can help an organization enable sustainable initiatives. Those companies that continue to consciously greenwash will irrevocably damage their reputation and fade into obscurity.
Santhosh Jayaram was speaking to HCLTech's Jaydeep Saha, Global Reporter