Turning Green into Gold

January 3, 2008

Organisations must get cleaner, smarter and more focussed to meet their ever-increasing responsibilities towards the environment and a sustainable economy. Yet, in doing so they should still stay competitive and harness the benefits of IT to drive up business value. They will require the services of professional innovators who, by measured activities, can transmute disjointed ‘green’ IT practices into strong corporate strategies and policies that shower golden benefits onto the business and its wider community.

Damage to the environment

The harm we have already wrought on the environment is staggering! According to data derived from the OECD’s ten official indicators used to measure environmental damage , the global emission of carbon dioxide has risen 88% since 1971 and is expected to rise another 52% by 2030. Municipal waste has risen from 100 million to 650 million tonnes between 1980 and 2005, which works out at around 550 kg per inhabitant in OECD countries. 62% of municipal waste is buried in landfill sites whilst only 27% is recycled. In the UK, we already have a chronic housing problem caused, in part, by the shortage of land available for building. The demand to find landfill sites at the expense of the green belt only adds pressure to this spiralling problem. Some evidence that the UK is now dumping its unwanted rubbish across developing countries also tars our credibility when participating in international debates on the environment.

We are all to blame for this sorry state of affairs. Industrialised countries are still pursuing aggressive policies on burning fossil fuels such as oil or coal to meet national energy demands; the amount of EU regulation on product labelling and packaging is still outrageous; businesses still tend to focus solely on the economic viability of products and services to satisfy their investors and shareholders; and the rest of us – consumers, still have an ongoing love affair with power intensive technologies. If we are really serious about restoring Nature’s fine balance by meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own requirements, we should all take responsibility now and act upon our good intentions without further delay.

Kyoto Protocol

To be fair, global policies on the environment are steadily improving. The Kyoto Protocol 1997 set down the objective of reducing greenhouse gases that cause climate change. In June 2007, 172 countries had ratified the treaty. Of these, 36 countries (including the European Union in its own right) are leading the way by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the levels specified for them in the treaty. 137 countries have ratified the treaty, but have no obligations beyond monitoring and reporting emissions. Increased collective pressure, however, needs to be put upon those countries that lag behind their enlightened contemporaries such as China, India and the United States – the latter being a notorious exception from ratifying the Protocol. The USA supports Kyoto’s principles, but as President George W Bush has stated:

This is a challenge that requires a 100% effort; ours and the rest of the world’s. The world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases is the People’s Republic of China. Yet China was entirely exempted from the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. India and Germany are among the top emitters. Yet, India was also exempt from Kyoto…. America’s unwillingness to embrace a flawed treaty should not be read by our friends and allies as any abdication of responsibility.” 

Challenges for today’s IT run organisations

Corporate social responsibility

Organisations have a far greater impact on the environment than individuals because of the scale of their operations. Many also recognise that they have a greater social responsibility by avoiding and eliminating corrupt, irresponsible or unethical behaviour that might bring harm to the community, its people or the environment. Corporate social responsibility or CSR promotes the idea that an organisation is accountable for the people within, people working with it, the community the organisation is in, and those who buy from the organisation. CSR replaces late 19th century philanthropy, illustrated in the exemplar villages of Meltham Mills and Saltaire in West Yorkshire which are both testament to the industrialist Brook and Salt families who believed passionately in raising their workers’ living standards, abolishing local poverty and generally improving the physical environment upon which their businesses impacted.    

Being responsible to customers has long been embedded in the ethics of business. ‘The customer is always right’ attitude of treating them with attention and respect is long known to sales and commission based work. What is new is the genuine care shown to customer wants and needs rather than viewing them simply as a profit-making tool. In many countries, by law, a business’s only responsibility is to make money for shareholders and to obey the law. However, CSR makes organisations responsible for the people they affect, even indirectly, and for any inaction or indecision that may have a negative impact upon the surroundings in which the organisation operates. Organisations often make choices which have far reaching and unknown consequences, such as using far more packaging than is required for products. The environmental impact and cost is handed over directly to the consumer who is responsible for its disposal in an eco-friendly way, not the business. CSR ensures that management and shareholders run the organisation responsibly and take initiative for actions and consequences beyond their operational control.

Energy consumption

The total power and heat output of computers, servers and peripherals such as printers, has had a huge negative impact upon the environment. Standard desk top computers alone use around 99% of their power for cooling and just 1% to think!  Added to this, the Carbon Trust  estimates that UK businesses waste some 10% – 20% of energy they buy through poor controls. Businesses are facing a real prospect of energy rationing as consumption continues to increase year on year. Unless IT suppliers and users find a way to reduce power consumption, we will not have enough electricity supply to ensure business continuity. Data centres are most at risk, since their modern high-ended servers contain a higher density of hotter components which require more cooling, even though they are designed to consume less energy when processing data. Today, 70% of the cost of managing servers revolves around power and cooling. Computers and monitors also account for half of the electricity used in a typical office. With approximately 10 million office personal computers in the UK, it is estimated that 1.8 million are regularly left switched on overnight, wasting 1.5 billion kWh of energy. That amounts to approximately £115 million wasted in the UK every year. 

Good housekeeping and optimisation of existing IT is essential and must be measured against how much power the organisation actually consumes. IT and facilities managers should work coherently to understand power loads and the distribution of airflows, and to source renewable energy whilst ensuring good interruptible power supplies. Between April 2005 and March 2006, the total number of customer interruptions in the UK’s National Grid was around 21 million, with 1,966 million customer minutes lost. Both business continuity and security become issues when power supplies are regularly interrupted.

Waste IT – reduction and recycling

Globalisation, dynamic business processes, faster technology, and content rich media have all convinced us that everything we do should be done immediately. Products and services are tailored around this concept. As a result, we have become a throw-away society with scant regard for the environment around us. Until recent EU legislation, most organisations really gave little thought to the responsible disposal of unwanted IT.

Corporate practices on dealing with reducing and recycling IT waste may be well intended, but they are often disjointed. Take printers, for example. Businesses might shred unwanted waste paper, but can they really guarantee that the waste does not end up as landfill? Probably not! Despite the OECD’s estimation that commercial organisations use between 3000 and 3500 million cubit metres of wood each year  which is having a huge negative impact on the world’s forests, we still care very little for the amount of paper we use – not many printers are adjusted to print on both sides of a sheet of paper. Such piece-meal approaches to IT waste management do need coherence in order to give strength and depth to an organisation’s eco responsible culture.

Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint, which measures in units of carbon dioxide the impact of activities on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, has now become an important eco yardstick for governments and businesses. For example, organisations waste around 7000,000 tonnes of carbon because workers do not switch off personal computers and monitors in the UK. This works out at 10% of the UK’s climate change levy target set by Kyoto. The challenge is for organisations to reduce their carbon emissions, provide cash savings and optimise worker time. Many printer manufacturers are reducing their products’ carbon footprint by introducing long-life technology that avoids the need to replace key components whenever the toner runs out. When fewer consumable items are required, the resource consumption and waste production are minimised. Video conferencing can also help to achieve a zero carbon footprint by allowing people to communicate with different geographical locations without having to travel.

Server virtualisation

Physical servers require energy to manufacture, transport, run and remain cool. They must be disposed of in accordance with environmental regulations. Server virtualisation is an effective method of eliminating the hardware physical servers require by an average consolidated customer ratio of 12:1. If we started with 1200 power supplies, a virtual server would reduce them to 100 – a considerable saving on power. And with just 1 server needed instead of 12, there is much less IT to dispose of at the end of the product lifecycle.

The need for strong CSR leadership

UBS, the investment bank, recently compiled a study  that aims to predict how companies will benefit or be hurt by new regulations or consumer choices on climate change. The study recognises that organisations tackling climate change head-on, for example Tesco and Unilever, are not only revealing a broader commitment to risk mitigation but are also showing the quality of their risk controls more generally. Strong CSR leadership gives sector lead and probably competitive advantage too as stakeholders increase their awareness about eco-issues and want to contribute towards a more sustainable economy.

The IT manager as an eco-alchemist

Experienced and well qualified senior IT managers have a pivotal role to play as eco-alchemists able to lead the organisation on environmental issues as part of a larger fully-integrated CSR strategy. The eco-alchemist is not necessarily an authority on the environment, but he is an expert on how IT impacts upon the business. An effective risk manager who is entirely capable of re-engineering business processes, changing worker attitudes, and promoting cleaner technologies to help develop a more sustainable business without undermining its core activities, the eco-alchemist also recognises that products and services are no longer measured just on economic viability, but on social responsibility and environmental impact, the so-called ‘triple-bottom line’ principle and the basis of green computing. This principle gained momentum under the 1992 Energy Star, the US Environment Protection Agency’s voluntary labelling programme that promoted and recognised energy efficient monitors, climate control equipment and other technologies, resulting in widespread adoption of sleep mode among consumer electronics.

Eco legislation

The eco-alchemist will be aware, either personally or by delegation to in-house counsel or expert law firm, that the European Union has introduced over 200 pieces of eco-legislation,  including legislation on air quality; biotechnology, climate change, noise, pollution, sustainable development, water and waste. Two particular and recent EU legal instruments stand out for IT users and suppliers; the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) and the Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) which was implemented in the UK on 2 January 2007.  RoHS aims to minimise the environmental impact of waste electrical and electronic equipment by reducing the quantities of four heavy metals and two brominated flame retardants which it may contain whilst WEEE aims to minimise the impact of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) on the environment by increasing re-use, and by recycling and reducing the amount of EEE going to landfill.

WEEE Directive

Under WEEE, producers (manufacturers) and distributors (retailers) both have legal duties to provide consumers with take back facilities free of charge under the Producer Compliance Scheme (PCS) and Distributor Take-back Scheme (DTS). Producers must:

• provide information about business and EEE amounts
• make information available to operators of treatment and reprocessing facilities
• provide producer registration number to distributors
• retain EEE records for four years
• retain records of sales direct to end-users in other Member States
• use the crossed out wheelie bin logo on their EEE.

Retailers can join a DTS, offer in-store take back and offer consumer alternative facilities. Any service must be ‘free’ to consumers, records must be kept and full information should be made available to consumers.

Some argue that the fear of fines, a product ban or even imprisonment is the driving force behind WEEE compliance. A more likely explanation, however, is that organisations are awakening to new opportunities that include significant cost savings and efficiencies from direct and indirect recycling as well as better asset management. Extending asset life has an immediate and sustainable effect and optimises cost, performance and use of resources. Over a five-year period, organisations could put up to 30% of IT back into their business and associated savings could be as high as 90% on technology capital expenditure. Some retailers are also advertising a free take back service as a value-add to consumers when they purchase new.

In the UK alone approximately 3 million personal computers are decommissioned and are no longer in use – but many are still in working order. WEEE and CSR are stimulating social inclusion by allowing organisations to give away their decommissioned computers for re-use in schools and community organisations in developing countries. In the developing world, 99% of school children graduate from high school not having seen or touched a computer in the classroom .

Climate Change Bill

The Climate Change Bill aims to reduce UK carbon dioxide emissions by 60% through domestic and international action by 2050 and in line with our Kyoto commitment. This will be based upon a system of carbon budgets – a limit on the total quantity of carbon dioxide emissions a company can churn out over a specific period of time, currently proposed at around five years.
IT is responsible for about one billion tonnes of CO2 emissions each year – between 2 and 4% of global energy; the public sector is the biggest user of IT in the UK, spending around £12bn per year. As a result, the UK government is looking at how new technologies can help reduce energy consumption and allow for more flexible working.

Privacy, data protection, data retention and security

There are other legal implications that have an impact upon how we respond to environmental change. For example, most law-abiding citizens despise fly-tipping for its unsightly and polluting impact on the countryside, but stopping perpetrators is not so easy. Rubbish is illegally dumped somewhere in Britain every 35 seconds on average, with the problem costing millions to clean up. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says local authorities spend almost £100 a minute cleaning up after fly-tippers.

To combat this problem, Norwich City Council announced in June 2007 the deployment of surveillance cameras in fly-tipping hot spots to help identify and prosecute offenders. The policy will work well if covert surveillance is proved necessary and proportionate to any alleged offences. However, when citizens perceive that ‘surveillance’ technology is being used against them en masse and for any purpose, including hidden smart tags on wheelie bins to determine levels of household waste, the trust and confidence they bestow on government is compromised and civil liberties becomes an issue. Added to this is the responsible disposal of waste data according to data retention rules and data protection legislation (if personal information is present); disposal must take into account the rise in electronic crime and identity theft. When organisations fail to erase confidential data from the hard drive of disposed computers, disks or other data capture technologies, we seriously have to question our IT security procedures because we lose the trust of customers, consumers, and citizens when such mistakes become public.

ISO 14000 (series) – environmental management standards

The ISO 14000 environmental management standards exist to help organisations minimise how their operations negatively affect the environment, comply with applicable laws, regulations and other environmentally orientated requirements, and continually improve.

ISO 14000 examines the process of establishing an organised and systematic approach to reduce the impact of environmental impact over which an organisation has control. Effective analysis tools and options for improvement are also provided for. Certification is performed by third-party organisations. 

ISO 14001 is the accepted standard for an environmental management system (EMS). It specifies requirements for establishing an environmental policy, determining environmental aspects and impacts of products, activities and services, planning environmental objectives and measurable targets, implementation and operation of programs to meet objectives and targets, checking corrective action and management review.  

Eco-alchemy – transforming the business

Organisations have begun to take a proactive role to face the challenges of Green IT and produce real business benefits that include reductions in costs, improved efficiency and greater worker commitment. Of course, the golden prize is to ensure long-term environmental sustainability.

Respect; Reduce; Recycle

An organisation that embraces Green IT should be driven by the ecological trinity: Respect; Recycle and Reduce. Without the initial buy-in from all business stakeholders, any strategy implemented and actions taken will fail, or at best fall well short of expectations. We all must embrace green and ethical issues in line with demands from our peers, citizens, customers, suppliers, workers and other stakeholders upon whom the organisation has an impact.


Green IT is driven from the top, filters down through the business and settles on the bottom line using effective communication. This approach leaves everyone feeling that they have an active part to play within a clearly defined strategy. Some organisations are now nominating a dedicated Green IT Guardian responsible for implementing and overseeing energy savings, WEEE compliance and managing the organisation’s carbon footprint.

Risk Management

An integrated risk management strategy can help. It enhances an organisation’s CSR and delivers tangible business benefits, respects our concerns about climate change, recycles IT hardware, software and peripherals responsibly and reduces the organisation’s overall negative impact upon the environment. Adopting ISO 140001 to measure the organisation’s success makes good business sense.

Corporate strategy and policy must link with practical areas within an organisation to ensure take-up and success. Although recent industry surveys show that most organisations already have some form of organisation-wide environmental policy or stance, these approaches are invariably driven by a committee of the board, finance, HR, or compliance functions and are not cascaded into operational areas.

Know your assets – know your risk!

Much is to be said for placing Green IT at the heart of an end-to-end strategy spanning the complete lifecycle of the organisation’s assets. Dedicated ‘green partners’ are now available to advise the IT manager on the full spectrum of possibilities available to the organisation, including identifying and sourcing eco-friendly technologies, engaging business processes, and educating staff. Of course, any strategy should add value to the organisation rather than diverting attention away from the business, ensure ongoing security, and provide for business continuity. 

Contract clauses and Code of Conduct

Suppliers’ environmental friendliness is now under the spotlight with vigorous selection procedures that might include signing up to a sustainable Supplier Code of Conduct and contract clauses that reflect the customer’s requirements to engage an eco friendly IT supplier, from manufacture to disposal. Suppliers, however, will now need to drive better innovation of eco-friendly products and services in response to customer demand, especially in the public sector.

Ecology policies

It is important that all workers have policies that clearly define how the organisation is implementing Green IT. Typically, IT departmental policies cover recycling, waste management, print management, switching off personal computers, replacing CRT monitors with TFT screens, implementing server virtualisation, looking for energy savings, and compliance and education of the user community. Ecology policy should be built into employment working practices with simple advice to workers such as to turn off their computers and office lights at the end of the working day, refrain from printing out documents if unnecessary, and to use paper recycling bins. A simple footer on the bottom of company e-mails can also discourage irresponsible printing.

In history, the alchemist was credited with turning base metal into gold. Now, it is the turn of the IT manager to work miracles!

Will Roebuck is a Consultant with Bird & Bird. He is Founder and Legal Director of the E-business Regulatory Alliance, a not for profit company that promotes an enabling legal and regulatory environment for e-business, and author of Privacy in E-business (BSI 2004).