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At a time when public consciousness about the environment is growing, 60% of Gen Z consumers have online accounts they no longer use, and 69% have never tried to close these unused accounts, according to a recent study by Veritas Technologies. The mostly useless data associated with these accounts sits unused in data centers, and the electricity utilized by them accounts for two percent of all global carbon emissions — about the same amount as the entire airline industry.

The findings suggest young consumers are unaware of the impact of their own carbon footprint. From the report, 44% said it’s wrong for businesses to waste energy and cause pollution by storing unneeded information online. However, 51% believe electronic versions of their account-related statements and other documents stored online do not have any negative environmental impact.

The fallout? The Veritas study found that 47% of consumers would stop buying from a company if they knew it was willfully causing environmental damage by failing to control how much unnecessary data it was storing. Meanwhile, 49% of consumers think it’s the responsibility of the organizations that store their information to delete it when it’s no longer needed, the report said.

How consumers can learn a company is storing unnecessary data

There are multiple ways consumers can get a feel for a company’s data management practices, noted Rags Srinivasan, chief sustainability officer at Veritas Technologies.

“For example, multiple data breaches could indicate that a company is having trouble with its overall data management strategy,” he said. “Also, many places, including some states here in the U.S., give consumers the right to know what information about them a company is storing, including any unnecessary data.”

Srinivasan cited 2021 Veritas research, which found that on average, 35% of enterprise data is “dark,” meaning it has an unknown value, while 50% is redundant, obsolete or trivial. Only about 16% is business-critical, the study concluded.

Additionally, “many companies now include information about the environmental impact of data storage in their corporate environmental, social and governance reports,” said Srinivasan.

Veritas’ most recent Corporate Responsibility Report detailed how it reduced its carbon footprint by transferring its in-house data center operations to a colocation facility with greater energy efficiency.

“No mention of data sustainability in a company’s ESG report could be an indicator that it’s not a priority for them,” said Srinivasan.

How organizations should respond to ESG and data management issues

On average, just 15% of data is business-critical, according to Srinivasan.

“With half of customers saying they would stop buying from companies that fail to get a grip on the challenge, the risk for both businesses and the environment of not identifying and eliminating unneeded data is too great to ignore any longer,” said Srinivasan. “Data centers run 24 hours a day and, by 2030, are expected to use as much as eight percent of all electricity on the planet.”

It is incumbent upon leaders to pay attention to this issue. Srinivasan cautioned that organizations should not underestimate the environmental impact of poor data management practices – even if they are outsourcing their storage to public cloud providers.

Some good data management practices would be to make consumers aware of the costs of all this data, especially the negative externalities on our overheating planet.

“We must give them the facts — the data — and make it relatable,” Srinivasan said. “Second, turn the passionate among them into advocates.

“Armed with these facts, plus related talking points, they can become important instruments of positive change among their generation.”

Gamification can be used to help consumers make positive changes.

“For example, an impact meter could illustrate the effect their data hoarding is having on their own carbon footprints,” said Srinivasan. “It could allow them to compare their data carbon footprint with their peers and also a best in class benchmark, encouraging them to do better.”

Veritas also suggested encouraging customers to close unused or inactive accounts and providing guidance on deleting obsolete information they no longer need or want.

SEE: Best data governance practices for your organization (TechRepublic)

The study of 13,000 consumers was conducted by 3Gem on behalf of Veritas Technologies across Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, the UAE, the U.K. and the U.S. from February 1-16, 2023.

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