Microsoft needs little introduction. Our multi-year partner and IT behemoth shaped the modern-day computer industry and does everything from consumer software to big data and AI for the largest corporations on the planet.
Less commonly known is that the IT giant has been sustainability-focused for quite some time. Microsoft started introducing an internal carbon tax in 2009, and more recently, the company pledged to reverse all their historic carbon emissions by 2050.
Whether that’s a moonshot or a feasible goal remains to be seen – the technology isn’t there yet. But even ignoring the big scope goals, it’s clear that sustainability thinking is purposefully being engrained in every process within the company. And there’s more to sustainability than looking in the mirror. Microsoft wants to become a true sustainability partner for their clients and stakeholders and is aiming to take up a pivotal position in the society-wide transition towards circularity.
We talked with Myriam Broeders, CTO and responsible for the sustainability strategy at Microsoft Belgium & Luxembourg (recently awarded as one of the InspiringFifty Women in Tech 2022) and Mathias Vergauwen, Technical Architect in the Microsoft Technology Center in Brussels, with focus on their Cloud for Sustainability services.
Three pillars for sustainability
For a company the size of Microsoft, transitions do take time, explains Myriam. “To be completely transparent, these policies were being implemented in the US first. It took a while for everything to trickle down to the national subsidiaries. That’s not a bad thing per sé: we as Microsoft Belgium-Luxembourg now have a well-established policy to follow – with the necessary local adaptations, of course.”
The Microsoft sustainability policy is set up in three main pillars: Sustainable by design, Sustainable platform and Sustainable collaborations. These pillars are essential to prepare Microsoft for a circular business model. Each of them deserves some elaboration.
Sustainable by design
The impact of our modern-day use of digital technology isn’t always very tangible, but it’s big, explains Mathias. “The hardware that runs ‘The Cloud” sometimes feels elusive, and it’s easy to forget that something as simple and mundane as making a video call requires quite a bit of energy, infrastructure, and hardware.”
Microsoft’s large data centres aren’t only running Teams calls and out-of-office emails, but all the other Microsoft business services as well. Microsoft responds to our society’s endlessly growing hunger for data and computing power by investing in three new data centres in the heart of Belgium, wrapped around Brussels.
Together, these centres form the new Belgian Azure region. Sustainability is a focus for these centres. “New hyperscale Microsoft cloud infrastructure consumes only 12 percent on top of the actual server’s power draw, a radical efficiency improvement compared to traditional data centres.”
Myriam: “The old buildings used to be constructed like bunkers, mainly using concrete. Now, we use a more efficient steel construction method. They are modular, in the sense that these new sites are built to be adapted to multiple configurations, ensuring a long-life span with minor alterations.”
Server life cycles are also considered. “Using server hardware as long as possible helps a huge deal in reducing its impact.” Where servers used to be shredded after their service lifecycle, they’re now being repurposed, refurbished, or properly recycled,” Mathias explains.
But the hardware side is only a part of the equation. More and more, developers are starting to realise the environmental impact of the way they write code. Mathias: “We are heavily involved in the Green Software Foundation, a non-profit organisation that’s leading the push towards sustainable software development.
“The cloud is obviously a huge efficiency optimisation on its own. Still, there’s a lot to gain in coding everything as efficiently as possible and using all that computing power responsibly. For our own development teams, building as efficiently as possible is already ingrained in their development and benchmarking processes. More and more, I hear these considerations from clients as well. It’s important that we can share our experience and know-how with them and support them as much as we can in running their projects efficiently.”
There’s a lot to gain in coding everything as efficiently as possible and using all that computing power responsibly.
Myriam: “It’s not just about our direct clients. It’s a bit like spreading awareness about the impact of our consumption patterns. If we can do the same for the developing community, we can have a huge impact on the energy footprint of digital technology throughout society.”
Still, Mathias and Myriam see that these optimisations aren’t always a priority for clients. “It always depends on the size of the footprint, compared to other aspects of the organisation.”
A large manufacturing company for example might have other fish to fry. But for a fintech company, these optimisations could have a major effect on their footprint – and their financials.
It’s not just about coding and developing. Design and feature choices are also a part of the equation. “Do we really need a blurring algorithm to make people stand out from the background? Do we really need to send a video with that push notification? Every decision of a system architect or ux designer has an impact.”
Cloud for Sustainability
As one of the largest business software developers, it’s up to Microsoft to build the tools that can help other companies to achieve their own sustainability goals. “Microsoft wants to be central to the shift towards net-neutrality. That’s why we have the Cloud for Sustainability toolset. This way, we can enable companies to find realistic paths towards sustainable entrepreneurship.”
Microsoft recently released “Sustainability Manager”, a new SaaS product. It enables businesses to collect their emission data in one place, map it across countries and departments, explains Mathias. “This information is collected in reports and dashboards and can be used as a basis for a company’s sustainability strategy. It’s a great tool to measure performance and progress.” At the moment, the software includes mainly greenhouse gas emissions. Soon, it will also incorporate water use and waste management data.
Sustainability data toolsets are on their way up. There will soon be a whole market filled with data capturing & reporting software. Nevertheless, the tricky part of sustainability reporting is often getting the data in the first place. That’s what Arinti’s here for, but Mathias also has some advice: “Getting started is often the hardest part. Most sustainability journeys start with what I call an ‘artisanal’ process: the world of Excel files, collecting data and trying to find high level data to set those very first benchmark numbers.”
Myriam: “The following year, you’ll update that file and for the first time, you’ll notice a trend. And that trend should obviously be a reduction. You can achieve this without granular, hyper detailed data. Even partial data is a valid starting point. You’ll never collect every possible data point. You work with what you have.”
Mathias: “If you make reports, you have actionable data. If you do this regularly, you can set goals, extrapolate targets, and motivate people, and get the flywheel going.” Sustainability reporting should always be a means to an end: getting change done is more important than collecting every data point from the get-go.
One pillar remains: Microsoft’s Sustainable Collaborations. On a global level, Microsoft has the AI For Good project, and other philanthropic programmes. Another example is the “Entrepreneurship for Positive Impact program”, a support track for start-ups with business models that incorporate a positive impact on society.
“A great Belgian example is BeeoDiversity, a biomonitoring company that uses bees to measure and analyse pollution and ecosystem health over huge areas, at low cost.”
”Another interesting one is Ayes, a start-up that specialises in solving accessibility issues in cities. They are developing an app that uses AI to translate the world from a video feed to audio, telling blind people what’s around them, which bus arrives at their bus stop and where they can safely walk.”
“Besides these specific projects, we’re always here to help clients set up their systems on our platforms as sustainably as possible”, Mathias continues. “Some of our clients are facing major challenges. The EU green deal and sustainability-driven legislation is changing the markets. Some organisations need to consider if their core activities will still be viable in the future, how they can develop new, sustainable business models or if they need to shift their activities completely. We aim to be there for them, offering technical solutions, advice, and support.”
Some organisations need to consider if their core activities will still be viable in the future.
“I believe we have a head start, thanks to our early initiative to set an internal emissions tax”, said Myriam. “Putting an internal price on emissions makes sure that people are accountable for their emissions. But even more important, it forces everyone in the company to set up frameworks to measure and report their carbon emissions, a huge help to identify opportunities. It also assures that sustainability remains constantly top-of-mind for everyone.”
Carbon emissions now have an internal cost of 15 dollars per ton CO2. “That’s less than the market value of around 85 dollars, but it allows us to transition smoothly towards our goals,” explains Mathias. There is differentiation as well. Some emissions, such as air travel, are easier to avoid, and have a much higher cost of over a hundred dollars per ton CO2. These internal rates are continuously evaluated and changed when needed.
Emissions are on everyone’s mind today, but of course, there are other topics as well. Myriam: “Waste management, water use, and biodiversity are also important to us as a company. And then there’s the human side of sustainability. We develop our productivity tools with people’s wellbeing in mind, adding features to manage stress and help people to avoid working after hours. Internally, listening to people’s needs, contributing to their growth and helping them develop their skills are important issues.”
Still, with all that going on, there’s a lot of internal awareness to be created. “Eventually, you need to get every single employee on board, and that requires its own specific efforts. We want everyone at our local subsidiary to understand on a basic level why we’re taking these steps as a company. We try to get everyone to the point where they’re able to formulate an answer to the big questions: “Why is Microsoft doing this? What are the components to our sustainability plans? What do we want to contribute to society as an organisation? Don’t forget our clients have their own sustainability goals as well, and they will increasingly expect more transparency and accountability from us. We should radiate this. It is a key part of our DigitalAmBEtion plan, a multi-year investment plan in Belgium, designed to accelerate the digital transformation of public and private organizations and foster sustainable economic growth.”
Major challenges, strong solutions
As we’ve heard in our previous interviews with BekaertDeslee & Avient, lots of (industry) companies are struggling with one particular field: their supply chain. Myriam and Mathias are noticing the same struggles with clients.
“The Belgian industry was surprisingly quick to react. Many of them already have full-time sustainability managers and are on the right path. Still, their plans and strategies are often at the mercy of their supply chain. To make sustainable entrepreneurship possible, everybody will need to contribute and make a difference in their own domain. There will need to be a decent level of transparency and honesty and businesses will need to create a decent working relationship and build alliances to that end.” Besides willingness and mindset, businesses will need the technology and partnerships to do so. New machine learning and AI technology definitely have a big future, as AI is perfect for large scale data mapping and sorting, intelligent reporting and predictive analysis.
“We have the tools, but we need to figure out how we can help our clients get through the transition”, Myriam concludes. “What do our clients need to adapt to and contribute to that new sustainable economy? We need to keep asking that question.”
With the wrap-up of our interview session with sustainable experts within manufacturing, we’re organising a round-table session with both sustainability managers and EU representatives alike. We’re inviting you all to an afterwork session where representatives from the EU will share the vision of the Green and Blue deal and engage in conversation about questions and worries about the future of your sustainability strategy.
Register now to reserve your spot at the table, and ask away about reporting strategies, the impact on Europe’s competitiveness or any other question.
This is a limited-seat event, aimed only at sustainability managers and peers, to keep the discussion insightful and allow for qualitative networking.