Sustainability: Is Now the Time for IT to Get Busy?

In 2021, most chief information officers and IT leaders thought they had addressed environmental sustainability -- but 2022 presents another story. Here are six things to focus on if you haven’t already.

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

April 8, 2022

7 Min Read
green earth character with recycle symbol
Iván Jesús Cruz Civieta via Alamy Stock

In October 2021, I wrote an article that discussed sustainability and IT. The conclusion then was that environmental sustainability was not a priority for most CIOs and other leaders.

The 2021 CIO position was that virtualization and shrinking data center footprints had achieved significant and tangible sustainability goals. Proving out an ROI (return on investment) for sustainability was difficult, so why pursue sustainability as a major priority? It also seemed that in most cases, the sustainability work that had been done was good enough to meet the sustainability demands of government agencies and larger enterprises that were demanding sustainability initiatives from their suppliers as a condition of doing business.

The bottom line was, why should CIOs worry about sustainability anymore?

A Renewed Argument for Sustainability

Now in 2022, much of last year’s thinking is carried over. Sustainability seems highly altruistic in nature and difficult to quantify. It seems like it should be a lower priority for companies focused on revenues and profits. But is it?

The Harvard Business Review described sustainability as a “triple bottom line” issue for companies consisting of the “three P’s: people, planet, and profit.”

“You can't use business to do good in the world if you're not doing well financially,” said Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson in a blog post. “Doing well and doing good are intertwined, and successful business strategies include both.”

Henderson referenced a 2019 study that reported that 73% of global consumers were willing to change their consumption habits to lessen their negative impact on the environment, along with a Facebook Live discussion that showed that 89% of executives believed that an organization with a shared purpose (like sustainability) will have greater employee satisfaction. On the flip side, there was an example of a company that suffered severe brand damage because of an oil spill it mismanaged -- and of another company that suffered brand damage because it utilized labor under substandard working conditions in another country.

“It may seem counterintuitive that spending more money on sustainable business practices can boost a company’s profitability, but studies show that the most sustainable companies are also the most profitable,” said Henderson.

IT’s Role

Just what can IT do to avoid potential brand and profit threats?

First, if the company’s primary business is technology and it subs out work to subcontractors, the company can ensure that the subcontractors it uses employ workers who are paid fairly and who do their work in acceptable working conditions. Second, for all companies, whether or not their business is tech, IT still has opportunities, even after virtualization, to effect positive impacts in sustainable IT that can help the corporate bottom line.

Even in the post-virtualization era, data centers still account for nearly 1.8% of electricity use in the US, and they account for around 0.5% of total US greenhouse emissions. Data centers also consume large quantities of water for liquid cooling and energy production which stresses watersheds in drought-stricken areas.

Meanwhile, environmental social, and corporate governance (ESG) is beginning to play a role. Two years ago, no one even knew what the acronym ESG stood for. Now, ESG is poised to be a new frontier for corporate audits and for corporate accountability to the public with respect to environmental, social, and governance issues like sustainability.

ESG is a movement that CIOs can’t afford to ignore – and there is bound to be a new round of sustainability demands that government and large corporate entities will issue to their suppliers. Some of them will involve IT.

What IT Can Do

In most companies, IT has already virtualized servers and reduced data center footprints, so the question becomes, what more can IT do? Here are six things:

1. Deploy HVAC systems in strategic data center areas

An area of the data center that houses rapid-processing server racks is going to produce more heat than an area housing slow-moving cold disk storage. If IT hasn’t already done this, it should perform an energy assessment of its data center(s). Local utility companies and/or HVAC vendors often perform this assessment free of charge.

A data center energy usage assessment will tell you where your data center “hot spots” are so you can apply more direct HVAC cooling to them. The assessment will also show areas where energy usage is at lower levels. The end goal is to manage data center energy consumption more systematically.

2. Purchase energy-efficient assets

Computer equipment and software vendors have taken note of sustainability initiatives and are making their products more energy-efficient.

IT should include sustainability as a criterion in every vendor RFP (Request for Proposal) to ensure that vendors are investing in and providing energy-efficient products.

3. Move more compute to the cloud

Sustainability improves if you move more IT assets to the cloud. This reduces in-house energy consumption and continues to shrink in-house data center floorspace.

4. Where it makes sense, down-cycle equipment

Today, technology-related “e-waste” comprises 2% of the total waste in US landfills, but accounts for 70% of landfill toxic waste. If you repurpose older equipment like laptops and desktops to non-power users who don't need the latest machines, this keeps older equipment productive longer, and it reduces waste.

The flip side to this is that the older machines will likely consume more energy than their newer counterparts -- but avoiding stockpiles of used computers and components is probably worth it.

5. Streamline data and processing

Antiquated billing, invoicing, and other back-office systems and processes that don't integrate well with each other, and that produce excessive processing and paper, can be streamlined into single systems that are more energy-efficient and less wasteful. In some cases, performing an integration of this magnitude can be overwhelming for IT, so there are tradeoffs to be considered.

This is exactly why car rental companies, brokerage firms, telecom companies, hospitals, and others that have acquired and merged with other organizations opt to continue to run antiquated, disparate systems that do the same thing and by so doing, generate confusion for themselves and their customers.

At some point, maintaining all these systems will become too great a burden for organizations to maintain, and they’ll have to do something about it.

If they integrate and streamline these systems and processes, it will contribute mightily to sustainability by reducing waste and energy utilization. System streamlining and process reengineering will also eliminate pain points for IT, business users, and customers.

6. Use energy-efficient IoT

As more organizations install IoT (Internet of Things) technologies at the edges of their enterprises, it’s not too early to begin installing energy-efficient sensors and IoT devices.

There are energy-efficient sensors that only activate when they are sensing. They then go into sleep mode when they aren’t sensing. This saves money and preserves battery life. Lithium-ion batteries, commonly used in cellphones and sensors, should be managed so they can be delivered to certified battery recyclers for precious metal reuse at end of life, and/or disposed of in landfills in separate plastic bags to prevent landfill fires. The bottom line is the longer you can keep batteries running without having to replace them, the better.

Why Now Is the Time to Pursue Sustainability

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that Earth must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to avoid serious environmental repercussions, and citizens expect companies to take the lead.

That should be enough to trigger corporate environmental sustainability initiatives, but there is also the third P that the Harvard Business Review refers to: profit. Recent research by Deloitte revealed that “23% of consumers say they will switch to buying products from an organization that shares their values on environmental issues, and 42% have changed consumption habits themselves because of their stance on the environment.”

This should be enough to put sustainability on the CIO strategic agenda.

About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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