Thinking sustainability and digitalisation together

  • Cara-Sophie Scherf

A sustainable industry through digital companies

The need for a sustainable and digital transformation is rising on the political agenda both nationally and on a European level. Policymakers face the challenge that digitalisation is ecologically ambivalent, especially its indirect effects. Reliable empirical data and standardised measurement of its environmental foot- and handprint is still lacking in many application scenarios. At the same time, many companies are aspiring to become more digital and more sustainable at the same time. When it comes to SMEs and how they can leverage synergies in the sustainable-digital transformation, important questions arise:

  • How environmentally-sustainable are digitalisation processes in SMEs and which fields of action are there?
  • How are policy instruments used to date and how should they be used in the future to promote a synergetic sustainable-digital development?
  • Which role could the intensified cooperation between green economy start-ups and traditional SMEs play?
  • Which methods and standards are used or could be used by SMEs to measure the environmental sustainability (of their digitalisation activities) in an objective and verifiable manner, communicate it externally – and what is the role of digitalisation in this?

“Digitalisation in general is still a major challenge for many SMEs and its use as a tool to improve the environmental performance usually no priority. Whether and to what extent digital solutions are used to achieve environmental objectives beyond legal obligations depends on whether these ambitions exist in the first place, which priority they have and which price tag is attached to it, in other words: What the cost and expected return on investment is  - given that there are usually competing investment opportunities”, says CSCP’s Arne von Hofe.

Cara-Sophie Scherf, from Oeko-Institut adds that "German SMEs have so far rarely thought of the two topics of digitalisation and sustainability together, even though digital solutions can help companies operate in a more sustainable way. SMEs also show strong deficits when it comes to the level of digitalisation. They often lack the necessary knowledge and skills on top of scarce financial resources.”

With regard to political incentive systems Cara-Sophie Scherf sees a clear need for action: “Despite a growing number of strategies and (legislative) initiatives that touch upon the topic of sustainable digitalisation, there are so far only a few specific instruments in which the topics of digitalisation and sustainability are (consistently) brought together.”

The Oeko-Institut study “Incentive Systems for an Ecologically Sustainable Digitalisation in Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises” (in German).