Should Sustainability Be an IT Priority?

Everyone likes to talk about sustainable IT. But how many CIOs are actively including it as a priority?

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

October 7, 2021

5 Min Read
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“We can always tell when a new data center comes online.” 

These words were from a large electric utility manager during a casual conversation we were having about energy management. The manager was referring to the spike in energy utilization that the utility saw whenever a new data center was added to the system.

Data centers and networks are major energy consumers, and they are natural places to focus for companies that wish to lower their energy footprints as part of their environmental sustainability initiatives.

This is why a major US insurance company opted to spend millions of dollars several years ago to build a new, green data center, and why a major state government thousands of miles away did the same. In both cases, the data center capital outlays were extreme. And in both cases, the organizations projected that they would realize substantial cost and energy savings over time that would enable them to recoup their upfront costs.

Today, nearly every organization talks about sustainability, and IT consultancies like Accenture comment that: 

“The [COVID-19] pandemic has increased pressure on leadership teams to deliver financial value with societal and environmental impact for the benefit of all stakeholders … But the responsible values and the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) intentions of leadership teams are outrunning the ability of their organizations to deliver the necessary behavioral change.

"To succeed, they must strengthen their ‘Sustainability DNA,’ the management practices, systems and processes that shape new behaviors and decision-making capabilities.”

So, if organizations are all talking about environmental sustainability, what prevents them from delivering sustainability results, specifically in IT? Here are two big reasons:

1. Sustainability ROI is hard to quantify.

It was easy to justify computer and storage virtualization as a cost- and energy-saving strategy because the corporate C-level could see physical servers and storage devices being moved out of data centers, and it wasn’t hard to visualize the energy savings that were possible because of these removals. But it is far more difficult to justify an investment in a new HVAC system that will improve data center cooling near “hot centers” like server farms, where energy savings are tougher to quantify, and where all management sees is a new capital investment in facility equipment.

2. Sustainability usually doesn’t directly map to profits and new IT project deployment.

When an IT sustainability initiative goes up against a business profitability or major IT project, CIOs confirm that the sustainability goal won’t win out. Most of the CIOs I have visited with tell me that the initiatives that they’re queuing up for 2022 are a continuation of digitalization, the introduction of more business process and IT automation, projects designed to improve the customer and online experiences, security, and backend work with their ERP and supply chain systems. No one has talked about sustainability being a top IT priority in 2022.

How Sustainability Is Gaining Traction

Sustainability is gaining traction because it is being pushed by governmental agencies with their enormous purchasing powers. In 2020, the US federal government spent $682 billion on contracts with private firms. The government will use that buying power to further sustainability by targeting a 50% to 52% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

"From this point forward, companies will be judged by more than the profits they generate; they will be measured by the value they create for society. By virtue of the federal marketplace, the government has an opportunity to incentivize its contractors to heed that mandate,” according to a recent Washington Technology article.

The drive for corporate accountability doesn't stop there, because as larger enterprises work on sustainability to meet the government’s contractual stipulations, they’re also pressuring their smaller suppliers to show evidence of sustainability progress.

Enterprises like Kellogg, Nestle, and Walmart all place pressures on smaller company suppliers to adopt sustainability practices to the point where third-party auditors certify these companies’ sustainability progress as a precondition for doing business with their larger enterprise customers. As companies scramble to meet sustainability requirements, they look to the data center as an obvious area where they can show immediate results.

Greening the Data Center

Although CIOs don’t have sustainability penciled into their top priorities, they haven’t been ignoring it, either.

IT has been virtualizing computers and networks, improving equipment configurations on the data center floor, introducing better cooling systems, reducing data center building footprints, eliminating aging IT assets by recycling them and digitalizing paper to reduce physical storage. More employees are now working remotely, thanks to digital collaboration and conferencing. This has reduced facility square footage and its corresponding energy consumption. While CIOs have been shrinking their physical data center footprints, they have been moving more IT off-premises to the cloud. Some of this might come down to just punting the energy football to cloud providers -- but from the CIO’s direct energy consumption accountability to the company, it looks good.

This brings us full circle to the initial question: Should CIOs make sustainability an IT priority?

Based on current CIO top goals, the answer is “no,” but a combination of vendor- and cloud-based technologies is making it easier for IT to advance sustainability.

It is now a question as to whether most corporate IT decision-makers will feel strongly enough about sustainability to make it a stated IT goal in future plans.

Related Content:

9 Ways to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Data

How CIOs Can Advance Company Sustainability Goals

Is Cloud Migration a Path to Carbon Footprint Reduction?

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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