Companies across all sectors are working to become more environmentally sustainable. But the road toward environmental sustainability is full of complexities, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Some companies with mature sustainability programs may have years worth of historical data to measure their progress and guide their future efforts. But what about younger companies or those that are just beginning their sustainability journey? Where can they start? 

Companies developing new sustainability programs may need to dedicate the first few months to completing a materiality assessment, evaluating their environmental impact, and identifying areas of improvement before they can even consider implementing changes to be more sustainable. These first steps vary substantially depending on company-specific characteristics such as sector, size, resources, and goals. 

During a materiality assessment, stakeholders (including representatives across company departments and sometimes external partners) are engaged to discuss and agree on environmental topics that are the most relevant to their company. Business leaders and investors alike are recognizing sustainability as a strategic priority that, if ignored, can have negative impacts both on the planet and their business. 

The materiality assessment allows the company to identify the most important sustainability issues and focus its efforts on those areas with the highest potential to improve environmental performance. 

One common priority across most companies is reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to mitigate climate change. Our blog post “Snowflake and Sustainability: What Can Be Done Today to Ensure a Better Tomorrow?” discusses how climate change remains a major threat to the planet, and why reducing GHG emissions is vital to slowing it down. 

However, the approach to reducing GHG may vary broadly depending on the company, even within the tech sector. Tech companies that, unlike Snowflake, operate data centers often find that they account for a major portion of the company’s carbon footprint. When a company identifies energy consumption from its data centers as a priority, several things must be considered to improve performance. According to Energy Innovation LLC, energy consumption by data centers can be attributed to several IT equipment systems, including storage, servers, network equipment, and cooling and power provision systems. To reduce emissions, companies may need to switch to renewable energy sources and improve the energy efficiency of their data centers by upgrading their infrastructure and cooling systems.

Traditional on-prem storage is designed for peak capacity but that means most of the time, they’re not used to that full capacity and wasting power. The Snowflake Data Cloud on the other hand, is designed for near-instant on/off resource usage, eliminates the need for multiple copies of the same data, and improves concurrency, which may ultimately reduce enterprise data center CO2 emissions.

Other tech companies that do not operate databases but also identify GHG reduction as a priority will focus on other aspects of the business, such as office operations. Calculating the carbon footprint of an office is a vital step in assessing the environmental impact of the business. But how can this be done? 

An essential early step is to develop a GHG emissions inventory for energy consumption. Electricity is usually the primary energy source, but emission inventories should also account for natural gas, fuel, district heat, propane, or other sources of energy. Coworking spaces and shared buildings can make it difficult, but not impossible, to assess energy usage by the individual company. Commercial space landlords or management companies can help businesses calculate energy usage for the space they occupy. BSI sustainability consultants partnering with Snowflake advise that GHG inventories must accurately account for all company emissions within the selected boundaries and should be completed using consistent methodologies to allow for meaningful comparisons to assess progress. 

Once businesses collect data on the energy consumption of their office, they will need to convert those values into their GHG emission equivalents. For electricity specifically, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggests that a large office building uses an average of 19.4 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per square foot annually. This means that a 100,000-square-foot office building could use around 1.94 million kilowatt-hours per year, which equals approximately 839 metric tons (t) of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). For reference, using EPA estimates, after selecting which data to convert, 839 tons of CO2e is equivalent to the emissions released by “181 gasoline-powered passenger cars driven for one year,” and it would take “993 acres of U.S. forests one year to sequester the same amount of CO2.” 

Companies may calculate these conversions using their own tools or by partnering with third parties that can provide them. The EPA’s user-friendly conversion tool provides estimates, and while it should not be used to complete formal audits or emissions inventories, it can help the public understand the relationship between their energy consumption and carbon emissions.  

The calculations above are based on the assumption that all energy is from fossil fuel sources. It’s important to note that certain regions have policies in place, such as California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires electricity providers to produce a certain percentage of the energy they sell from renewable sources. Companies with establishments in multiple regions must consider this when calculating their emissions. Renewable energy production does not generate CO2 emissions the way energy that comes from fossil fuels does. Renewable energy emissions are mostly associated with the manufacturing and installation of equipment, so CO2 emissions are substantially lower.

Baseline assessments and GHG emissions accounting are only the beginning of the journey toward sustainability. In order to develop successful sustainability programs, businesses should assess and address other areas such as water conservation and waste management. Companies can identify areas to address based on sector- and topic-specific standards from reporting frameworks like GRI. The data collected from these assessments will serve as guidance to set sustainability goals and determine which interventions are needed to improve environmental performance in the short and long term. Performance should be reassessed after implementing changes, and the results should be compared to baseline data to measure improvement. Developing a sustainability program is a long journey, but committing to it is the first step in becoming a sustainable company and protecting our planet for this generation and those to follow.