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Sustainability: Should CIOs still care?

25 May 12

Five years ago, Green IT was the trendiest thing around, but it didn’t take long for exhaustion to set in, making it an easily dismissible fad for some. The reality is, though, that alongside the Green IT hype lies a very real, and very positive, legacy of sustainability, as well as a new definition of best practice. IT Brief talked to Chris Seale (centre), director of sustainability for Fujitsu ANZ, Tim Dacombe-Bird (right), New Zealand regional manager for VMware, and Hamish Alexander (left), country manager, Imaging and Printing Group for HP, about what lies ahead for sustainability in the IT industry.

Let’s start with something easy. Are ‘sustainability’ and ‘Green IT’ the same thing?

Chris Seale: Sustainability is broader than Green IT. For me, Green IT is about energy efficiency at the IT level; for example, more efficient hardware. Sustainable ICT looks at this, as well, but also at issues such as enablement. For instance, how can ICT be used to achieve sustainable outcomes for other industries or in other areas of our lives?

Tim Dacombe-Bird: They are definitely not the same thing. One of the products of sustainability is Green IT. In New Zealand, since we are mainly powered by renewables, as opposed to other markets that may be more fossil fuel reliant, Green IT has a very different meaning here.

Hamish Alexander: To me, sustainability means acting responsibly as a global citizen. This means addressing the world’s most pressing challenges – and opportunities – by providing solutions that help people and businesses connect and create a better world. While sustainability speaks to an overarching responsibility, Green IT is what we can do to honour our responsibility.

Does sustainability give businesses/corporations a real advantage?

CS: There have only been a few formal studies to look at overall sustainable performance and fiscal performance, and even then we have the chicken and egg debate: are companies more successful because they are more sustainable or are they sustainable because they are more successful?

TD-B: There is still a perception that Green IT is expensive, and as such, this is holding some companies back. However, a more sustainable approach does create the opportunity to drive cost savings and, therefore, free up budget to invest in other parts of the business. This can certainly create an opportunity for competitive advantage in business.

HA: Green technologies, devices and practices not only help businesses reduce their carbon footprint, they can also help drive greater productivity, and significantly reduce costs. In a world made up of ever increasing environmentally aware businesses, being able to meet green IT needs is paramount.

What is the CIO’s role when it comes to sustainability?

CS: In delivering sustainable solutions and, in particular, sustainable ICT, the CIO has the opportunity to raise the profile of how ICT can help reduce the organisation’s environmental footprint, and has a key role to play in saving the company dollars.

HA: It is the CIO’s role to know the company’s sustainability and business goals and factor these into IT decisions.

Where should he/she start?

CS: We’d recommend starting with a Green ICT policy aligned to the organisation’s sustainability/environmental policy. This can then form the foundation of a programme that should be run as a transformation initiative. The next step is to gain a true understanding of the situation. CIOs should know their energy usage. Evidence from our last benchmark report showed that organisations that had visibility of their power bill scored 20% higher in their sustainability maturity rating. From this better understanding will come opportunities, both in terms of how ICT can reduce its environmental footprint and how ICT can be used to reduce the environmental footprint of the rest of the organisation. There may well even be a number of projects that are already planned that have an environmental dimension to them. These, along with others developed from working with the sustainability team, finance team and facilities, should form a portfolio of opportunities that can be implemented by the IT department. The IT department can mix quick wins with long term programmes to deliver real benefits to the organisation, supporting and underpinning the broader sustainability drive of the organisation itself.

What has been the impact of the economic environment on sustainability adoption and practices?

CS: I don’t believe that the current global economic environment has had a significant impact. I actually believe that the political debate has had more of an impact. Parking the sustainability aspect and focusing purely in terms of dollars, wasting less makes business sense, so I believe the adoption of green practices has continued unabated. Successful companies understand and control their costs. Leading companies are going beyond this and are looking at the total cost of ownership. This sometimes means that they are making investments for the future, they are betting that sustainability is an issue that will become more and more central to the way that societies and companies operate going forward. I would suggest that this is a sensible course of action to take and that organisations should start to future proof themselves by understanding and then adopting increased sustainable performance into all aspects of their operation.

TD-B: The local and global impact of economic factors has been substantial and positive. As belts have gotten tighter people have been looking to save more money, and virtualisation is one area that has helped to drive extensive cost savings.

HA: More and more, IT, procurement and business leaders are being called on to align their departments’ operations with corporate green and cost-cutting initiatives. And while it may seem careful to halt any new investment in these initiatives during difficult economic conditions, a Forrester Research study shows that many organisations actually have the opposite view. According to Forrester, twice as many companies are accelerating their green activities compared to those slowing down.

Is transparency the norm when it comes to sustainability related performance information?

CS: Transparency, unfortunately, is not the norm, both in terms of IT and the ICT industry. Our research consistently shows that CIOs are, more often than not, unaware of the power consumption of their IT estate. This is one of the most basic but significant blockers to progress in many organisations. Within the industry, standards are being worked on by a number of organisations, and we see some progress there. However, as an industry we still have different definitions of some of our basic terms. For example, what we define as a desktop managed service can differ from firm to firm or from analyst to analyst. So if we cannot completely agree on what a service is and what it includes, we are still quite a long way from coming up with clear and comprehensive ways of measuring and reporting the environmental impacts of these services. That said, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Where/what are the easiest ways to go green or be sustainable when it comes it ICT?

CS: There are many actions that can be taken and some of these are often in terms of the low hanging fruit. Despite the fact that these constitute quick wins, Gartner estimated take-up was as low as 15-20% in 2010. This means that many organisations are missing out on simple cost savings. That said, we have also observed that organisations need to treat this as a programme and not operate as a tick list. Our Global Benchmark research suggests that some of the once-plucked low hanging fruit can 'grow back' if the changes are not embedded into a proper program.

TD-B: The uptake of sustainable solutions can’t really be attributed to any one market sector, it’s really across the board. The GFC really honed people’s views on spend across the board, and nearly all companies want to be more efficient and sustainable.

What lies ahead?

CS: Increasingly, organisations are realising that sustainability and good business practice are compatible goals. I would like to see that sustainability becomes part of every organisation’s culture rather than an add-on. We are seeing more customers demand sustainability credentials from their suppliers – driven by widespread community awareness as well as increasing regulatory pressures. Organisations are becoming increasingly concerned about their environmental impact for all of these reasons and are focusing more attention on measuring their impact, assessing their own operations and comparing themselves with best practice. ICT has a role to play beyond the efficiency of the IT estate and into the realm of how IT can be used in innovative ways to enable significant reductions in emissions in many industry sectors, and by doing so also saving money and transforming the way companies run their business. Once we accept the reality that we currently operate in an unsustainable manner, then the only possible conclusion is that we need to transform the way we do business. This significant level of change presents threats as well as opportunities that businesses would do well to understand.

TD-B: The concept of cloud computing will continue to drive a trend towards greater consolidation, since cloud is about greater consolidation of workloads, and driving better economies of scale, such as a single server in the future handling maybe 100 workloads or more. We will also see greater automation and adoption of management technologies, which will reduce the operational requirements and associated overheads for ICT workloads.

HA: I strongly believe that the transition of the printing industry from analogue to digital solutions will significantly reduce the environmental footprint of printing. By transitioning from analog to digital, companies will save waste, time and energy through a number of efficiencies.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of IT Brief.

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