The Environmental Impact of Information Management
Petra Beck

By: Petra Beck on April 22nd, 2024

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The Environmental Impact of Information Management

Intelligent Information Management (IIM)  |  Digital Transformation

April 22nd marks the annual Earth Day, where, jointly with many organizations, mobilize volunteers to drive education and elevate awareness, highlight governance efforts and conduct cleanup efforts.


The Significance of Earth Day

Businesses and organizations take the opportunity to highlight their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint or their solutions and efforts related to carbon footprint reductions.

This day is meant to increase our consciousness for environmental Information Management, and trigger actions for the entire year, with impacts lasting for decades and future generations.

I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on the aspects that impact our environment with a special focus on Information Management, an area that is rarely highlighted in sustainability discussions, yet plays a relevant role and touches our private and professional lives.


Paper: A Closer Look

Let’s start with paper and zoom in on business paper, letters in the B2B and B2C environment, documentation that is part of business processes, originating from sources outside as well as inside the organization.

To highlight the environmental impact of paper, let’s look at a couple of data points:

  • Tree Consumption: 20-30 trees are required to make one ton of standard office paper (approx. 200k sheets)
  • Water Usage: 1-10 liters of water are required for one ton of office paper. Paper production is also a significant contributor to water pollution.
  • Carbon Emissions: Paper mills create almost a ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2eq) of greenhouse gas (GHG) when producing a ton of paper.
  • Waste Generation: Approximately 1 billion trees' worth of paper is discarded annually in the U.S., with discarded paper and paperboard constituting around 26% of landfill waste 

Embracing Digital Solutions

Digitalization of business transactions helps to address the challenges above; however they involve the carbon emission involved in the devices, the energy consumption required for the digital transmission of data, computing and storage.

That said, it is worthwhile considering whether it is necessary to print digital documents for personal reference or review. It is also advisable to think about the use of paper when exchanging documents with colleagues as technology for annotations, e-signatures etc. is widely available.


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Document Management Strategies

The ecological footprint of the various business input types and processing methods should also be taken into consideration as part of a Document Management strategy. Incentives for digital business communications should be considered e.g. using digital forms for applications, sending bank statements etc. With the increasing environmental consciousness among businesses and consumers, a campaign highlighting the climate-positive impact ideally coupled with incentives should have a positive impact on the willingness to shift communication channels. Of course, there are further material advantages of digitalization including cost savings and shorter transaction times.

Where it is not feasible to significantly reduce the use of paper documents, recycling can significantly reduce the carbon footprint involved in the manufacturing of paper and of course its disposal.  

Another element of the environmental impact of paper is reforestation. A data point highlights the importance: Over 7 million hectares of forest are lost every year, and roughly half of Earth’s tropical forests have already been cleared. There are important efforts like the Canopy reforestation project; since 2010, EARTHDAY.ORG™ has planted tens of millions of trees as part of this effort. These projects allow organizations to compensate at least part of their environmental impact.


Hardware Considerations

Before we look at the sustainability aspects of the processing, distribution and storage of digital files and data, it is worthwhile adding a few considerations related to hardware devices, which come into play in various Information Management process steps involving laptops, PCs, screens, printers, scanners, servers etc. The carbon footprint varies substantially based on the parts and manufacturing process between manufacturers but also models. As over 80% of Green House Gas emissions of these devices relate to the manufacturing process, it is relevant to consider environmentally friendlier options offered by refurbished and remanufactured devices. Furthermore, extending refresh cycles or re-assigning equipment to secondary use cases should be part of an eco-conscious IT strategy.


Data Centers and Sustainability

For the manufacturing process as well as the ongoing use of these devices, office buildings and in particular the data centers the use of renewable energy has a major impact on the carbon footprint.

A couple of data points that highlight the environmental impact of data centers:

  • Energy Consumption: Data centers generate 3.5% of the global GHG emissions, with much of the energy consumed used for cooling and ensuring the redundancy of the infrastructure; less than 10% is used for computing.
  • Water Usage: Rising water requirements for cooling exacerbate water scarcity issues, particularly in areas hosting data centers.

The broad use of AI based tools and in particular LLMs are expected to exponentially increase the requirements for data centers.

The carbon footprint of data centers and their strategy to become carbon neutral should be taken into consideration when selecting cloud service partners.

The increasing need for water required for the cooling of data centers needs to be considered in relationship of water scarcity caused be the climate change. This causes an increasing threat in communities where data centers are competing with drinking water needs.


The Role of AI and Language Models

The exponential energy requirements using Artificial Intelligence tools should be taken into account, when assessing their business value and when considering the replacement of imaging-based technologies for standard data extraction requirements. That said, the required data points to assess the environmental impact of Large Language Models (LLMs) will emerge over time. The training effort of the first LLMs was enormous, however the effort to develop future language models is expected to be considerably lower. Going forward the ongoing compute effort will be an important aspect, with benchmarks to evolve over time.


Strategic Alignment

Hopefully the review of the sustainability implications outlined above highlighted that the choices in an organization’s Information Management operation can make a material difference for its environmental footprint. These considerations should be taken into consideration as part of the Information Management and Intelligent Document Automation strategy. Here they need to be aligned with emerging legislation related to sustainability and carefully balanced against other strategic goals like customer experience, productivity, and profitability.


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About Petra Beck

Petra Beck is a senior analyst in the Infosource Software division, where she is responsible for analyzing the global Intelligent Capture and Intelligent Document Processing markets. Petra has over 25 years of experience in the Information Management market. Prior to joining Infosource Mrs. Beck held various global positions in the industry leading business research, divisional and corporate strategic planning as well as thought leadership functions. Petra Beck holds a degree in Business Administration and had multi-year assignments in the US, UK, and France.