Digital waste: Your carbon footprint may be bigger than you think

  • October 10, 2023

From ChatGPT to bingeworthy TV, otherwise environmentally conscious consumers may be creating more waste than they realize.

For decades, companies and consumers alike have been hearing about climate change and learning new ways to “go green.” In the last ten years alone, consumer awareness has increased substantially, and acting to reduce one’s carbon footprint has become more mainstream. Reusable water bottles, municipal composting and recycling programs, and bans on plastic grocery bags are all gaining popularity. While these are all great ways to fight climate change, even the most diligent environmentalists often overlook one key element — digital waste. Beyond the usual culprits of pollution and waste most consumers’ daily digital hobbies are also contributing to carbon emissions. From streaming video content and music, to using services like ChatGPT, video conferencing and emails — even scrolling through social media — the way we engage with digital services negatively affects the environment. While streaming may seem harmless, it requires large datacenters, networks, and devices, all of which use significant power and resources that contribute to emissions. The higher the quality of the steaming or the amount of data transferred, the more significant the impact. What’s worse, many consumers aren’t even aware of this impact.

NTT DATA recently conducted a Consumer Pulse survey to explore digital waste and found that 70% of respondents were unaware that certain digital activities have a negative impact on the environment. Further, many respondents (29%) never think about digital waste and only 11% think about digital waste every time they use digital media or the internet. For many consumers, streaming music TV or movies instead of traditional cable is the new standard. Digging deeper, we found that consumers were least aware of the environmental impact of attending virtual meetings/gatherings (77% unaware) and having a digital AI assistant in your home (75% unaware).

Digital services beyond entertainment

As consumers continue to consume digital streaming and social media, the impact will continue to grow as we use up massive amounts of energy that pulls from Earth’s natural resources. The impact of digital services is felt beyond the home, as office environments, whether in-person or virtual, contribute to climate change. From video conferencing to sending an email, nearly everything employees do in a typical office environment has an effect. Half of respondents reported they think more people working remotely since the pandemic has reduced environmental impact. However, with the rise of remote work came an increase in home offices and all that comes with them — highspeed internet, computers and monitors, lights, and air conditioners running across more homes, contrasted with fewer shared resources across employees. Regarding job-centric tasks, consumers are unaware of the environmental impact. 70% weren’t aware that sending email and online messages (especially with attachments) contributed to digital waste. While not communicating online likely isn’t an option for most employees, with more education and awareness, steps can be taken to reduce harm across office environments.

Who's responsible?

Even among those who agree climate change is a pressing matter, there’s still debate on who’s responsible for intervening. 35% of consumers in our survey said they think businesses should be held most responsible for reducing digital waste, while another 34% think it’s governments who should be held most responsible. They also want companies they buy services from to be transparent, with 53% saying it's very important or extremely important that digital-based companies (for example, streaming services, video conferencing platforms) disclose their environmental impact data and sustainability goals publicly. Consumers also want to work for more environmentally responsible companies, with 80% saying it’s at least somewhat important that a company they work for is committed to reducing their environmental impact.

Hope on the horizon

We can’t simply stop using all digital services. So, what can be done to help the situation? For consumers, it’s about making small changes. The good news is that many consumers are willing to make those changes. Specifically, 45% would be willing to delete photos and videos from cloud storage, and 34% in fact already have done so to reduce their impact. Another 44% would be willing to spend less time on social media channels, and 30% have already done so.

For organizations, the first step is fully appreciating the size of their carbon footprint, and making small sustainable efforts to reduce it. For example, NTT DATA sponsored Robert Swan’s Undaunted South Pole 2023 expedition to engage employees with the company’s journey toward sustainability. Companies can implement training programs on how to reduce digital waste at work for their employees and create ongoing opportunities to learn more. Those initiatives can grow into policies. NTT DATA uses digital twin technology to predict and optimize energy consumption toward a goal of achieving a carbon net-zero emission.

Based on these findings, there’s an opportunity to educate consumers on what contributes to digital waste. A better understanding of which activities contribute will allow them to take a more active role in mitigating their impact, while guiding consumer behavior to more accurately drive business and government behavior in the right direction.

To learn more about NTT DATA’s Digital Waste Consumer Pulse survey or see more results, please reach out to  

Subscribe to our blog

Corie Pierce Headshot
Corie Pierce

Corie Pierce is the vice president of external communications and sustainability for NTT DATA Services, where she leads global analyst relations, media relations, social media and sustainability efforts.


Related Blog Posts