Being a conscious consumer means recognizing that everything we do invariably generates some kind of impact, and so it essential that consumers strive to reduce their environmental, social and individual impacts. Contrary to what you might imagine, this doesn’t have to mean giving up shopping or drastically reducing what you consume, but rather consuming differently, seeking to find ways of satisfying the functions performed by products so as to minimize negative impacts and increase positive impacts through production, usage and disposal.
When we say everything we consume generates an impact, we mean everything, including the production and archiving of content on digital platforms.
This means that photo you posted on Facebook or that video uploaded onto Instagram cause negative environmental impacts. Clearly the individual impact of a single photo or video is negligible; however, the overall impact is significant considering that if Facebook was a country and its users the inhabitants it would be the world’s second most populous country after China. And more and more people are set to become connected to the internet around the world, leading to a steady increase in the impacts of content production and archiving, which needs to be closely monitored.
The main impact stems from the fact that social networks or information storage systems and cloud computing depend on servers housed in data centers that consume huge amounts of electricity. The generation of this electricity, especially from nonrenewable energy sources (fossil fuels), emits GHGs to the atmosphere, as well as causing other socioenvironmental impacts.
The information technology (IT) sector alone accounts for 7% of total global electricity consumption, using 1,817 TWh of electricity a year, while the world’s data centers account for 1.4% of world energy consumption. The size of the carbon footprint of the IT sector is growing. At the moment it is responsible for 2% of the world’s GHG emissions from human activities, emitting almost 725 Mt CO2 in 2016 alone.
Active Facebook users in Brazil are responsible for the emission of 30.6 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e), which is equivalent to the emissions of over 4,000 cars driving around the world.
But the impact doesn’t stop there. The data centers used by Facebook to meet the demands of Brazilian internet users consume over 114,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of power in a year, which is equivalent to the consumption of over 15,500 Brazilian households in the same period.
In addition, data center cooling systems use vast quantities of water. One of the solutions found by Facebook to minimize water consumption is the introduction of fresh outside air and water evaporation technologies. However, despite these alternatives, the platform uses over 55 million liters of water a year to meet the demands of its Brazilian users, which is similar to the amount used in the production of fruit and vegetables to meet the daily needs of over 263,000 people for one day, or almost 8,800 people for a month, or 720 people for a whole year, based on the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO)*.
* The WHO recommends that a minimum of 400g of fruit and veg should be eaten every day in five portions of 80g, besides the other food groups.