The critical role of IT in driving sustainability


In previous columns, I have written about how companies such as Nike, Walmart and SAP are using sustainability strategies like Product Life Cycle Analysis, green product development and the reframing of environmental standards to deliver on their sustainability goals. Now, we turn our attention to the important but often overlooked role of Information Technologies (IT) in supporting green business strategies.  In the past, many companies have been reluctant to consider IT for a host of reasons including the presence of significant legacy assets; the mission-critical nature of many IT systems and; the lack of a strong consumer impetus. 

IT systems and their accompanying data centers are a major source of carbon emissions, toxic waste as well as being a major consumer of energy. According to a study by A.T. Kearney, a consultancy, corporate IT departments creates as much as 1 million tons of obsolete electronic equipment each year and produces 600 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions worldwide per year. For perspective, these emissions are equivalent to the annual CO2 output from almost 320 million small cars. As well, some data centers are so big that they consume as much energy and water as a small city.

With Internet-based services growing at healthy double-digits per year, IT’s environmental impact will continue to increase rapidly unless management does something to rein it in.  If most organizations are going to meet their aggressive sustainability goals, they will have to take a hard look at their IT operations. 

Where should they start looking?

Powering down

Energy usage is a key area to tackle first. According to the Interactive Data Group, a typical IT department in 1996 spent 17 cents of every dollar to power and cool a new server. A decade later, the rate jumped to 48 cents per dollar.  The firm predicts that number will grow to over 70 cents by 2012.

When considering ways to reduce power consumption, an obvious place to look is the data center.  A number of steps can be taken here including monitoring and improving HVAC efficiency; switching to more efficient blade server and virtualization architectures and; choosing cooler climates to build new data centers.

The front office is another fertile source of energy savings.  Every firm can benefit from quick wins such as installing power measurement and management software and introducing policies that require PC users to shift to low-power or shut-off state when not using their machines.  When Bendigo Bank in Australia mandated employees turn off unused desktop computers, monitors and printers that used to run constantly, they saved more than $300,000 a year in electricity.

Buy greener

Better purchasing governance is an important tool to reduce a firm’s environmental impact.  For example, managers could stipulate that new equipment purchases must bring the highest energy efficiency ratings as well come from companies that feature prominently in sustainability indexes and standards. Moreover, buyers might also look for products manufactured from recyclable materials and that generate minimum amounts of hazardous waste and carbon emissions.  Finally, in order to reduce the purchase of unnecessary assets, policies should be enacted that prevent buyers from over-buying equipment just because someone wants the latest technology.  One way to ensure this happens is by extending the life cycle of IT equipment.

Improve reporting

Some companies are using IT to improve sustainability reporting across the entire value chain.  Dow Chemical’s IT group, for example, acts as a green watchdog, tracking emissions, performance and vendor activity.   Dow is using this data to calculate a net environmental balance across a product’s entire life cycle to help them better understand how materials are consumed in manufacturing. These insights can identify environmental and cost savings throughout their operations as well as their vendor inputs.  Finally, improved tracking and reporting will enable companies to better meet customer sustainability programs like Wal Mart’s Sustainability Index as well as provide key environmental data to consumers.

Greening IT will be crucial to helping many organizations achieve their aggressive sustainability targets. Managers can ill afford to ignore this under-developed area.  

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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1 comment so far

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