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To enable real change, we must examine every aspect of an organization to understand how we can edge closer to improved sustainability efforts and outcomes.

While information technology (IT) networks are out of sight, they should not be out of mind, as they underpin and connect every area of our lives. The good news is that they're also moving closer to promoting sustainability for people and the planet.

Sustainability starts with rethinking every aspect of an enterprise’s technology product and service lifecycle. Here, we take a step back and examine how new network sustainability approaches are helping to address pressing environmental challenges.

Building sustainability into network components

Across the IT ecosystem, we’re witnessing a rise in the production of hardware and related equipment that has a lower environmental impact on our world. It’s designed with modern, more efficient power supplies and silicon components that need less power to operate, and manufactured using fewer materials that are carefully selected. The result is network devices with less embodied carbon and more efficient product lifecycles.

Networks comprise hardware devices and software that come together to deliver connectivity. The physical components, including devices, routers, switches and even electrical wires, are heavy contributors to ewaste.

There’s a growing shift toward network hardware and software manufactured with fewer materials using more modern and efficient techniques linked to zero-waste targets. For example, standardizing hardware charging ports across the European Union has cut down on about USD 338 million in ewaste from obsolete hardware. Component materials are being sourced sustainably, avoiding “conflict materials”, and with consideration given to how they are transported to customers.

Packaging is another significant source of waste. Manufacturers of the most widely used network equipment have announced their ambitions to be carbon neutral, and part of their overall plan is to use 100% recycled packaging, thereby lowering the environmental impact for their partners and customers.

Creating new solutions for better efficiencies and less strain

Networking equipment is becoming much more energy efficient and can provide more robust capabilities using smaller form factors (the physical specifications of components) in their design. A dense form factor needs less cooling and consumes less electricity, thereby lowering costs and delivering better performance. 

Network product designers have also added ingenuity to sustainability. They provide features such as Power over Ethernet, enabling the network to power devices such as lights, phone handsets and sensors. In addition, to reduce power consumption and further improve efficiency, network ports can be automatically placed in standby mode or turned off when they are not in use.

Old and aging network equipment must be recycled in approved facilities. IT asset disposition is a growing practice focused on reusing, recycling, repairing and repurposing equipment in a safer, more responsible way while cutting back on landfill. Modern recycling programs harvest components for reuse and recover raw materials for recycling, with some manufacturers targeting up to 99.9% of materials, thereby significantly reducing waste.

Laying the foundation for sustainable solutions

Networks are so much more than the backbone of connected societies and economies. They are fast laying the foundation for improving sustainability and helping organizations to achieve their environment-related sustainability goals. At NTT, we have demonstrated our commitment by working toward a set of sustainability ambitions that includes a target of net-zero carbon emissions from our operations by 2030. Our solutions teams are also exploring remote environmental monitoring and carbon-footprint measurement at a granular level to give our clients visibility in this increasingly critical area.

More sophisticated networks are bringing smart and sustainable facilities to life. The network, when integrated with building management systems, opens the door to smart buildings, enabling sensors to measure and track movement, capacity, environmental factors and more. Smart buildings improve employees’ work experience with features like wayfinding, meeting-room location services and asset tracking, and – important for sustainability – mechanisms for intelligent lighting, climate control and AI-enabled video surveillance.

The network fuels innovation in IoT projects

Examples of IoT innovation in sustainability include water sensors in the soil to prevent overwatering; sensors to measure air and water levels or quality; proximity sensors; air-pressure sensors and intelligent cameras. These innovations provide new insights across the network to measure and improve sustainability.

In summary, a modern, efficient and software-defined network infrastructure can help to improve an organization’s sustainability posture significantly. When we consider how to apply this technology in support of our sustainability goals, the only limits are our imagination and creativity.

Read our 2022 sustainability progress report to see how we’re driving change on our planet, in our economy and in our communities.

Gary Middleton is Vice President: Networking Go-to-Market at NTT