Starting the digital revolution in sustainability

Digital tools can help companies to better keep track of their sustainability footprint, goals, initiatives and progress, with even the United Nations calling digitalisation key to achieving the Sustainability Development Goals. Here’s a look at how US-based Gensuite is using technology to help businesses.

Digital dashboard
With stricter regulations and more public demand for business transparency, digitalisation could give businesses more insight into their socioenvironmental impacts. Image: Pixabay

You can’t manage what you can’t measure, the corporate adage goes, and this is true in sustainability too. In 2018, the United Nations said that digital tools, including those to track resource consumption, could help the world to reduce its water and energy use by 15 per cent and more than 1.3 billion megawatts respectively by 2030.

“What we’re seeing is that more companies want to improve and be transparent about their environmental footprint, because they see it as a good business move or because their investors and consumers are pushing for it. To do that, they need to be able to collect data on their operations in an accurate and consistent way,” said Amanda Petzinger, senior director of customer relationship and development at software solutions firm Gensuite.

In a recent interview, Petzinger gave the example of an American company in the aviation industry that had carried out an “eco treasure hunt”—a type of corporate exercise to find ways to reduce resource use and waste—at one of its production plants. “We found that the facility had actually purchased a part two years earlier to cut its compressed air use, but the part was just sitting on a shelf, not being used,” she said.

“The company was using spreadsheets and a paper-based model to collect its operational data, and the part purchase had fallen through the cracks. If it had been using more sophisticated digital tools to keep an eye on its sustainability projects, it would have saved about $40,000 in compressed air,” she continued.

Taking stock

Gensuite, which is headquartered in the United States, offers organisations a suite of software to track their resource use and waste, log sustainability ideas and calculate their benefits, and manage those that are being implemented. Its Eco Inventory Survey tool, for example, allows companies to set unlimited custom parameters for their sites’ data, including energy and water use, units produced and waste recycled.

An appliances company in Europe uses the tool to track its consumption of electricity, different fuel sources, including propane, kerosene and petrol, different water sources and more. “It is also looking at the number of units produced per site, so that it can tell whether a spike in resource usage is due to greater production or something that needs to be investigated,” Petzinger said.

She noted that the firm, which has about 100 plants, used to send a monthly spreadsheet to each of them to be filled out by managers. “It had to wait for all of the plants to return the spreadsheet and then compile the data. If anyone had messed with the spreadsheet because the calculations looked wrong, or didn’t provide the information correctly, the macros wouldn’t run,” she said.

“With our inventory tool, the company can just click a button to see which plants have not submitted their information and how it is performing each month towards its goals. There’s also no risk of anyone changing the template and breaking the system,” she continued.

Quantifying sustainability

Organisations seeking to improve their sustainability can also tap Gensuite’s Eco Treasure Hunt application. The software allows employees to log ideas and calculate potential benefits. “Let’s say you’re wondering how much electricity and money you’ll save by switching to a more efficient light bulb or motor. Once you input the product models and information about your usage, the built-in calculators will tell you,” Petzinger said.

“This really helps people to document ideas, quantify expected savings and figure out where they can get the biggest bang for their buck, in terms of projects to reduce their energy or water usage or other resource consumption,” she added. Companies have used the tool for both one-off sessions at their facilities and as an ongoing repository for ideas.

Digital tools, including those to track resource consumption, could help the world to reduce its water and energy use by 15 per cent and more than 1.3 billion megawatts respectively by 2030.

In the United States, a manufacturer of health and beauty products used the application for an eco treasure hunt at one of its plants. “The facility had a process where newly-made empty bottles would come down a conveyor belt to be collected in a giant box, but for some reason the box was placed a foot or two away from the end of the belt,” Petzinger recalled.

“A nozzle at the end of the belt emitted compressed air around the clock to blow the bottles into the box. By looking at the size of the nozzle’s opening and the rate of air flow, we calculated that it was costing the firm $10,000 to $15,000 a year to do that. All the facility had to do was push the box closer to the belt and let gravity do the work,” she said.

Building on best practices

The other offerings in Gensuite’s toolbox include the Eco Project Deck, a management tool that enables companies to create plans for sustainability projects with designated teams and milestones, review auto-calculated carbon dioxide emissions savings, analyse estimated versus actual savings and produce return on investment reports.

“If you use all of the tools together, you get a nice flow of where you are, what ideas you have, what projects will be implemented and what impact those will have on the bottom-line of your sustainability goals. Afterwards you also get to review the choices you made and better shape the story of your company’s environmental journey,” Petzinger said.

She acknowledged that the cost of such sophisticated digital tools may be a hurdle for some organisations. Firms may need to install sensors to obtain more granular information about their electricity and water consumption, for example, to maximise the usefulness of the Eco Inventory Survey tool.

“There will also be companies whose leadership will question the need for more advanced tools when they are already using things like spreadsheets. The way I would put it is: how much time are you spending now trying to track down and collate your data? Is that the most effective use of your time?” Petzinger said. 

She added that Gensuite’s tools may be particularly useful for companies in the Asia Pacific to address compliance assurance, incident management and supplier environmental, health and safety risks, with regulations in the region becoming stricter and more public demand for business transparency. Gensuite now has offices in Shanghai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Melbourne.

She summarised: “We’ve built our tools partly by leveraging the learnings of our subscribers over the years. Not every company has the expertise or skills to create, say, accurate calculators for compressed air usage. There’s a lot of value in tapping others’ experiences and best practices instead of starting from scratch yourself.”   

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