Big Data’s Influence on Sustainability

By Nathan Sell*

Our world is inundated with data collection, from location services to demographic information enormous volumes of data are generated with each passing moment, so much so that 90% of the existing data has been generated in only the past two years.  This data can provide enormous opportunities in marketing, allowing companies to target an ideal customer, resulting in eerily relevant ads on social media or in targeted emails.  “Big Data” doesn’t stop here, it has a multitude of uses and one of its most important may be the impact Big Data can have on Environmental Sustainability.

Ultimately, Big Data’s influence on sustainability comes down to the notion that you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  Through a plethora of metrics that have arisen by which we can now measure the environmental burden of a company’s operations or supply chain, we can also model how changes can have an enormous impact.  Early movers in the use of Big Data as a sustainability tool have seen enormous cost savings, and reduced impact, both to their operations, supply chain, as well as product use and disposal.  Big Data allows for modelling and scenarios that can alter mindsets, showing the possibilities in both monetary savings as well as reduced environmental impact.

By streamlining deliveries, UPS has saved millions of gallons of gas, and approximately $50million in fuel costs.  Ford has reduced the weight of their popular F-150 for their 2015 model by 700 lbs by using aluminum alloy technology.  This change could have a greater impact on overall fuel economy amongst Ford vehicles on the road than their electric vehicles due to the truck’s popularity.  Big Data alone will not solve our sustainability issues, but coupled with innovation, like Nike’s waterless dyeing technologies, or waste reducing manufacturing techniques, Big Data can fuel a more sustainable economy by allowing for the educated decisions that bring about more sustainable products, and redefine our notion of “premium.”

Big Data, has allowed for enormous benefits to be had by some of the largest companies out there.  We must, however be cautious with our use of Big Data.  Despite much of the anonymity associated with it, this data is frequently much less anonymous than one might think.  We also should consider what companies are doing with their own big data.  Exposing an unseen environmental burden could be bad PR, but withholding it from shareholders could end in scandal.  Educated consumers must demand transparency from companies we invest in and purchase from.  Corporate Responsibility Reporting (CSR) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) are driving this transparency which in turn has led to great changes in the behavior of business.  The advent of Big Data has only just begun.  As supply chains and product use become better documented, it is clear that sustainability is only just beginning to get the attention it deserves.  On March 26th and 27th, the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) will host “Sustainability in the Age of Big Data” where companies leading the sustainability movement will share insight into their use of Big Data, undoubtedly leading others to think about what Sustainability and Big Data can do for them.

*Nathan Sell is currently the Graduate Intern at Wharton IGEL and a second-year Masters of Environmental Studies Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences. 

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