Leveraging Green IT

What it is and how it can offer a competitive advantage.

Green It Black Salmon
iStock.com/Black Salmon

Sustainable IT, also known as “Green” IT, reduces the environmental impact associated with conventional Information Technology (IT). Traditionally, companies monitor energy consumption of heating and cooling systems, appliances, and lighting. However, until recently companies haven’t given as much consideration to the environmental impact of laptops, phones, tablets, data centers, networks, etc.

Green IT primarily covers manufacturing, use, management, and disposal of computer-related products in an environmentally conscious way. The goals of Green IT are to:

  • Reduce the use of hazardous materials.
  • Maximize energy efficiency during a product’s lifetime.
  • Promote the biodegradability of unused and outdated products.

Why is Green IT important?

According to the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems:

  • In 2018, 92 percent of households in the U.S. had a computer at home, compared to eight percent in 1984. Of all households in 2018, 78 percent had a desktop or laptop, 84 percent had a smartphone, 63 percent had a tablet, and 85 percent had a broadband internet connection.
  • The IT sector accounts for four percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and this could double by 2025.
  • Electricity used for U.S. servers and data centers emits 35.9 million metric tons of CO2 annually, which equates to 4.04 billion gallons of gasoline consumed per year.
  • In 2019, about 54 million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide—only 17 percent was recycled properly.
  • One ton of printed circuit boards has a higher concentration of precious metals than one ton of mined ore.

Employees, activists, governments, and ordinary citizens are beginning to pressure large enterprises to prioritize climate change and modify how they think of IT within the context of Green IT. The challenge will be to reduce IT’s carbon footprint while delivering high-quality, low-cost technology services to customers and employees. CIOs and other technology leaders, in conjunction with CEOs and other C-level executives, are finding themselves on the front lines of this transformation.

There are several actions that CIOs can take today to move the needle regarding Green IT within their enterprise. These actions involve sourcing strategies, establishing metrics, and monitoring/managing performance against these metrics.

  1. Sourcing Strategies. The fastest way to reduce IT’s carbon footprint is to revise policies for technology sourcing in one of several ways:
    • Optimize the number of hardware devices (PCs, printers). For example, the leading enterprises have roughly one printer for every 16 people in the workplace; the overall average is roughly one printer per eight people.
    • Shift to the cloud. Could your company servers be moved to a different data center that uses less space or has lower cooling costs? Enterprises that want to reduce their power utilization and carbon footprint could migrate workloads to the cloud service providers, such as AWS. Many of these co-locaters are buying green energy themselves and investing in ultra-efficient data centers.
    • Adjust hardware refresh timelines. What are the current refresh cycles for your laptops? Could you lengthen the refresh to four or five years instead of three? Have you considered refurbished devices instead of new? CIOs will need to continue to adjust refresh cycles and timelines. Extending refresh timelines can greatly reduce the quantity of raw materials needed to manufacture hardware devices.
    • As a corollary to acquiring hardware assets, develop a strategy for asset disposition. Do you have an ITAD (IT Asset Disposition) partner? How are your IT devices disposed? Could the devices be recycled? CIO’s can work with their manufacturers and service providers to determine what that strategy should be.
  2. Establish a “Green Metric”. As part of a sourcing and supplier management process, IT organizations can further assess manufacturers, service providers, and others based on:
    • How advanced they are in recycling and refurbishing electronics, including statistics on reduction in carbon footprint and raw material recapture.
    • Designing circular components (reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling of products and their components).
    • Extending product life cycles with better design, higher-quality manufacturing, and more robust materials.
  3. Measure and Monitor. Establishing a green metric is only a start. CIOs need to establish a baseline of performance, measure progress against the baseline, and track impact in real-time. Areas of immediate progress include the number of end-user devices purchased and in use, current age, and ratio of users to device (e.g., print). Another method is to evaluate the power consumption of large technology assets over time by embedding monitoring equipment from power companies.

Green IT can be a competitive advantage for businesses. Businesses use environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting to disclose green IT practices. Positive ESG is attractive to customers, talent, and investors. In fact, most IT organizations include ESG as a purchasing criterion when choosing information and communication technology.

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