When thinking about sustainability in IT, most people think about reducing CO2 emissions and planting trees. However, sustainability in IT is a lot more than being green. It’s about looking with another perspective at your (corporate) organization, in relation to the environment.

A funny contradiction in IT is that IT is seen as very sustainable, as traditional industries are seen as very polluting. Traditional industries do in fact pollute a lot of CO2, like in the oil sector, chemical sector and transportation. However, the IT sector is not very sustainable either.

A few examples of IT being not sustainable

Let me give some examples to paint a clear picture that perhaps IT is green, but it’s in many cases not sustainable.

A large gas and oil producer had outsourced part of its IT activities to an Asian partner. This partner turned out to use a sub-supplier who employed underage employees to carry out all kinds of manual data entry activities. A non-governmental organization discovered this by accident. The entire affair has resulted in negative publicity for the oil producer.  

In this example, the organisation has estimated a risk related to sustainability at the expense of the reputation and expected financial benefits of outsourcing.

Several customers of a small ICT supplier have asked for more insight into their carbon footprint, as this was part of their corporate sustainability policy. However, the ICT supplier was a bit surprised by this request, as their focus was more on realizing a new data centre architecture based on platform as a service (PaaS).

In this second example, the managers were mainly focused on technological developments, and not really on sustainability issues.

We send messages by email and keep all documents digitally, to reduce the use of paper for printing. This totally fits in the corporate sustainability goals. We think we do a great job. The data centres storing all this data are in high demand and expending. Kevin is 10 years old and works in a mine in Africa to extract raw materials for building the computers and chips that are used for data storage. He makes just enough money for him and his family to eat.

This third example shows the extent to which we tend to focus on the chains of the production process that are near to us. We tend to forget the things that happen in other places in the world, but are quite horrible. Due to globalization, these parts of the production process are far away, but it is in fact companies (not only suppliers) that keep these part hidden. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it can’t be prevented or improved. 

Sustainable iPhone

Sustainability and profitability

Walmart is an example of an organization that knows how to combine sustainability and higher profitability. The organization has defined thirteen networks around various sustainability-related themes. The networks at Walmart consist of various internal and external stakeholders and primarily aim to reduce the pressure on ecology. For the supply chain network, however, this means not only less packaging material, but also an estimated cost reduction of $ 3.4 billion over the period 2008 to 2013. This is a clear example how sustainability can support profitability. It only needs a bit of effort to start.

However, although this seems remarkable, Walmart is also known for underpaying their employees. This is an ethic part of sustainability in which Walmart clearly doesn’t excel.

sustainable office

Work together on sustainability in IT

It appears that companies needs to increasingly require the IT organization to investigate the information provision. This means that the IT department needs to investigate more precisely human rights, ethics, social involvement and environmental issues. In this way, sustainability is an issues that requires managers and IT to work closely together.

What can go wrong?

In the above described examples, what went wrong?

In the first example, the compliance of the contact to outsource activities has not been monitored properly. Why didn’t they? Corporations increasingly have to follow social responsibility expectations of consumers, clients and governments. Fear of damaging their reputation is in most cases a driving force into investigating suppliers, clients and partners. The IT can contribute by providing portfolio techniques to provide insights into sustainability goals in relation to costs and profits.

In the second example, it seems the IT supplier was surprised by the demand for more insights on sustainability and energy consumption. A growing focus of companies is on their energy consumption, as reducing energy use is a more tangible part of sustainability goals.

In the third example, the IT department was perceiving data storage as an answer to sustainability policies. This appeared to be a bit short sighted. They should’ve known better.

In any case, the subject of sustainability provides the average IT organization with sufficient challenge for the coming years. It is therefore an excellent subject where a proactive IT manager with business sense can demonstrate that IT is more than profitability.

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